In my piece on the best albums of 1955, I acknowledged the year as a fundamental one for the development of rock and roll as a mainstream force. I also clarified that there was a lag in that development for big LP presence, but that all changed in 1956. Even though I’ll address him in more detail below, it’s impossible to not acknowledge here the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who took R&B and country-inflected tunes out of the realm of singles-only by sheer popular force (even while issuing numerous singles and EPs), and who had three out of the top five hit singles of the year (#3 through 5 were “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t Be Cruel”). And obviously, besides the format of the music business, he had a huge part in the reshaping of an entire popular culture.
But he wasn’t the only rock act to receive tremendous success, even as he and the genre in general stirred up much controversy in the Puritan and racist structure of white America. Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” was the second biggest hit of 1956, even as Doris Day’s rendition of “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” stood at the top of the heap, an illustration of the music forces in contention with, or maybe even complementing, each other. Rock definitely has the edge on this list, but exciting folk interpretations and the steady pleasure of old pop standbys appear as well.
#7 — SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS! — Frank Sinatra
Favorite track: “You Make Me Feel So Young”
Frank Sinatra made the best album of 1955 and his entire career with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, a reflection of the “sad Sinatra.” His follow-up, SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS vacillates back to the upbeat and, well, swinging approach (and yes, it is funny to think of “swingin’ lovers” in the context of today’s partner-swapping definition of the phrase). I’ve expressed that I prefer Ol’ Blue-Eyes when he’s down and out, but of course songs like “You Make Me Feel So Young” are buoyant and deliciously arranged, once again by Nelson Riddle. SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS certainly feels old-fashioned in a year full of electrifying, new, and radical music, but as you might guess from the very nature of this piece, old-fashioned is no problem for me, especially when it’s this good.
#6 — ELVIS PRESLEY — Elvis Presley
Favorite track: “Blue Moon”
As with Sinatra, there’s another era of Elvis I prefer to his early days. I’m a bigger fan of baroque pop/Las Vegas country Elvis, but there’s no denying his breakout days are full of iconic and incredible tunes. With ELVIS PRESLEY, rock and roll reached a new level of cultural acceptance that, if you couldn’t tell from my operating as a broken record in this piece, is hard to understate. And yet it’s not even the best rock record of 1956, in spite of the wonderful range on display. For all his later self-parodic vocals, Elvis could hit crooning and nasally high notes not unlike Buddy Holly (best heard on the brilliantly somber and stripped-down take on “Blue Moon”) and the deep rumble. ELVIS PRESLEY is undoubtedly a great collection of riling rock tunes and stirring ballads, but it was indeed outshined by the contributions of Black artists.
#5 — ODETTA SINGS BALLADS AND BLUES — Odetta
Favorite track: “Spiritual Trilogy”
Case in point: Odetta, a wonderful folk artist whose interpretations of traditional songs have a challenging air of modern experimentation, even as they stay true to the soul of the music. ODETTA SINGS BALLADS AND BLUES was the deep-voiced performer’s solo debut; she had released THE TIN ANGEL in 1954 as one-half of the short-lived duo Odetta & Larry. But this record is almost startling in its simplicity and the vocalist’s powerful and distinguished sound. The Americana tapped into by Odetta, her guitar, and her voice carries heartache, joy, really the whole emotional spectrum. The medley of “Spiritual Trilogy” is especially a moving closer to the whole of ODETTA SINGS BALLADS AND BLUES, an album that just builds up a musical vision of American folk music full of human strength.
#4 — ROCK, ROCK, ROCK! — Various artists
Favorite track: “Maybellene”
I debated including ROCK, ROCK, ROCK! on this list, as it is a compilation soundtrack for the 1956 film of the same name. But ultimately, the presence of foundational rock artists on an LP for the first time (or only one of the first times) is too hard to deny, especially when Chuck Berry is one of those artists. I haven’t seen ROCK, ROCK, ROCK! the movie, but I understand it to be a pretty unabashed vehicle for capitalizing on the rock trend, and its soundtrack’s artists indeed appeared in the film as themselves. Those artists (in addition to Chuck Berry, The Moonglows and The Flamingos) serve up an affecting cross-section of contemporary rock music, a very specific point in time that offered a new sound for ballads like The Moonglows’ “I Knew From the Start” as well as the truly radical approach of Berry’s “Maybellene.” ROCK, ROCK, ROCK! is just a wonderful dive into rock and roll just on the edge of paradigm-shifting importance as some saw it as a temporary aesthetic trend.
#3 — CALYPSO — Harry Belafonte
Favorite track: “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”
Yes, CALYPSO is the album that first carried Harry Belafonte’s famous recording of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” But as great, iconic, and unfalteringly uplifting as that song is, it’s not the only reason why CALYPSO is a great record. As he showed immediately with his debut album MARK TWAIN AND OTHER FOLK FAVORITES (my 1954 favorite), Belafonte was an ably modern interpreter of, if not outright traditional songs, then traditional sounds updated into a songwriting structure and sonic style that still feel fresh today. And that all applies to this, his third album. CALYPSO is often vibrant and purely enjoyable, but it’s also reflective and contemplative in a truly felt way.
#2 — ROCK AND ROLLIN’ WITH FATS DOMINO — Fats Domino
Favorite track: “Ain’t That a Shame”
Domino had a stellar year in 1956, releasing his first three albums. all great. His first, ROCK AND ROLLIN’ WITH FATS DOMINO, is nearly his best, as it carries “Ain’t It a Shame,” truly one of my favorite songs of its era and perhaps beyond. If there’s anything “less than” about it, it’s just the song selection as compared to his third record THIS IS FATS DOMINO! (a spoiler, I guess). That’s because these early albums were really just gathering all the great singles Domino had been making for all of the ’50s decade leading up to and including 1956. There’s a little bit more piano noodling on ROCK AND ROLLIN’ WITH FATS DOMINO, which isn’t to say this is a spacey record; far from it, as the tracks neatly fit into the R&B brevity of the time (as in, less than three minutes long). And other tunes can’t really enter the stratosphere of “Aint It a Shame,” but this is all relative. ROCK AND ROLLIN’ WITH FATS DOMINO is a great album, and I can explain why Domino is a great artist more fully by addressing…
#1 — THIS IS FATS DOMINO! — Fats Domino
Favorite track: “Blueberry Hill”
“Blueberry Hill” (a great song) was a smash hit and the album that springs forth from this opener is able to keep up with it. THIS IS FATS DOMINO!, at about 27 minutes long, never lets up on the, well, rocking energy and earnest soulfulness that makes Domino one of the greats of his time and beyond. His interpretations of others’ writing (like “Blueberry Hill”) were beyond impressive at a time when artists capitalized on every hit song with reckless abandon, but Domino’s songwriting skills (often in collaboration with Dave Bartholomew or Alvin Young on this record) are also remarkable considering the infrequency of a “performer-songwriter” at the time. His immediately distinguishable voice has a softness as well as a deep tone that meshes with his piano and driving backing band so well. And he did all this before it was “cool,” ending up with great success based on the framework he laid down years prior (in addition to other great artists of course). All this, and the sheer catchiness of the songs themselves, makes THIS IS FATS DOMINO! a stellar record in a year full of Domino releases, and of course, the best album of 1956 in general.