1961’s Best Rock albums sets up a decade of music that was 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 unfold 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. It was at the Cavern Club when 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 own 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 of all time. 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 biggest rival as far as r&b went was the Stax label. Originally founded 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 really began to ignite in 1961.
In the 1960s Frank Sinatra was probably the biggest name in show business, a popularity that he also enjoyed in the 1950s and even 40s. His role in classic rock history is significant because of the formation of his own record label entitled Reprise Records in 1961. It was Reprise Records that would sign a new act called The Beach Boys. The label would also sign The Kinks and Jimi Hendrix. Not many people ever give much thought to the notion that Jimi Hendrix actually 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 great 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. Additionally, a band called The Tokens released a song called “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” that somehow continues to find new life in a movie soundtrack or TV commercial every decade.
1961’s Best Rock Albums list is a presentation of artists that crossed many musical genres. There are still not plenty of albums being released. But that will quickly change over the course of the next two years.
# 25 – Please Mr. Postman – The Marvelettes
# 24 – The Lion Sleeps Tonight – The Tokens
# 23 – Roy Orbison at the Rock House – Roy Orbison
# 22 – The Genius Sings the Blues – Ray Charles
# 21 – Gee Whiz – Carla Thomas
# 20 – Hi… We’re the Miracles – The Miracles
# 19 – Showcase – Patsy Cline
# 18 – Rick Is 21 – Rick Nelson
# 17 – The Soul of Ike & Tina Turner – Ike & Tina Turner
# 16 – The Second Time Around – Etta James
# 15 – Neil Sedaka Sings Little Devil and His Other Hits – Neil Sedaka
# 14 – Blue Moon – The Marcels
# 13 – Both Sides Of An Evening – The Everly Brothers
# 12 – Something for Everybody – Elvis Presley
# 11 – Bristol Stomp – The Dovells
# 10 – Spanish Harlem – Ben E King
# 9 – Dance ’til Quarter to Three – Gary US Bonds
# 8 – Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo – Aretha Franklin
# 7 – Bo Diddley Is a Lover – Bo Diddley
# 6 – Let’s Twist Again – Chubby Checker
# 5 – Runaway with Del Shannon – Del Shannon
# 4 – The Shadows – The Shadows
# 3 – New Juke Box Hits – Chuck Berry
# 2 – Lonely and Blue – Roy Orbison
# 1 – Runaround Sue – Dion
Best Albums of The Year Series
1961’s Best Rock Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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