Ranking the best and worst years in music history
Arguing about the best music eras is an age-old American tradition. Generation Xers—generally considered those born after the 1946-1964 baby boomers—are likely to wax poetic about Seattle grunge or even New Jack Swing, while the Greatest Generation—with members born from 1901-1927—usually have fond memories of Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby. Of course, millennials—born between 1981-1996 and addicted to Spotify, YouTube, and Beats By Dre headphones—will probably tell you that Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Drake are the greatest performers to ever grace a stage.
To help dissect each of these arguments and more, Stacker compiled comprehensive chart data on every year in music ranging from 1940-2019, using Best Ever Albums data as of July 30, and ranked the years according to their total rank score. The total rank score is devised by Best Ever Albums, which awards points to an album based on how many times it appears on “Best of” lists in magazines, e.g., Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Albums of All Time; on entertainment websites, e.g., Pitchfork's Top 100 albums of the 2010s; print media, including books and academic research; official forum rankings; and more. The total albums listed for each year is the number of albums in the database for the given year.
One spoiler to take note of, the 1940s and the 1950s tend to be ranked considerably lower because there was much less music production back then, and the data used measures the number of great albums in a year, as much as the “greatness” of the albums themselves.
Do years in which hip-hop reigned supreme push the 1990s and 2000s to the top of the list? Or do the days of Woodstock, tie-dye shirts, and raging Jimi Hendrix guitar solos garner more accolades? Continue reading to find out which year over the past eight decades has been the best in music history.
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- Total rank score: 305
- Total albums: 19
- Top-ranked album: "The King Cole Trio: Volume 1" by Nat King Cole
Frank Sinatra reached new levels of popularity, and fans mobbed him during a residency at the Paramount in New York City. Duke Ellington introduced his most ambitious project, “Black, Brown and Beige” at Carnegie Hall. The 45-minute musical depicted the African American experience.
- Total rank score: 342
- Total albums: 21
- Top-ranked album: "Her Second Album of Piano Solos With Drums" by Hazel Scott
Even during the height of World War II, musical artistry did not pause. In 1942, despite his city being continuously bombed by the Germans, Dmitri Shostakovich debuted his Symphony No. 7 in Leningrad, Russia.
- Total rank score: 582
- Total albums: 22
- Top-ranked album: "An Album of Outstanding Arrangements" by Glenn Miller
Although his album ranked at the top of the charts, 1944 was a tragic year for fans of Glenn Miller. The famed big band leader went missing after his plane disappeared on Dec. 15. Mystery still surrounds the fate of the plane, which many presumed to have crashed, ending the life of Miller.
- Total rank score: 612
- Total albums: 26
- Top-ranked album: "The Lonesome Road" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Queen’s Hall, a famous site for live music, was bombed by the Germans in May 1941. Queen’s Hall was effectively replaced by Royal Albert Hall, which remains one of the top theaters in London for concerts.
- Total rank score: 754
- Total albums: 25
- Top-ranked album: "Merry Christmas" by Bing Crosby
Beethoven’s “Fidelio” was the first opera performed in Germany after the end of World War II. The album “Glenn Miller” was released, a year after the namesake musician disappeared.
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- Total rank score: 818
- Total albums: 35
- Top-ranked album: "Dust Bowl Ballads: Volume 1" by Woody Guthrie
Billboard magazine published its first music chart in 1940. The top-ranked album of the year, “Dust Bowl Ballads,” was actually recorded in Camden, New Jersey.
- Total rank score: 896
- Total albums: 44
- Top-ranked album: "Chansons Des Cafés De Paris" by Edith Piaf
The world’s first jazz festival was held in Nice, France, and Louis Armstrong was among the notable names who performed. Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” was one of the year’s biggest hits.
- Total rank score: 896
- Total albums: 51
- Top-ranked album: "Souvenir Album" by Ella Fitzgerald
Bing Crosby’s “St. Patrick’s Day” album was one of the biggest releases of the year. Posthumous Glenn Miller albums continued to be big sellers. “Glenn Miller Masterpieces, Vol. 2” was released to much fanfare.
- Total rank score: 950
- Total albums: 43
- Top-ranked album: "The Voice of Frank Sinatra" by Frank Sinatra
“Annie Get Your Gun” was a Broadway hit, and an album recorded by the original cast became a bestseller. Perry Como’s “Prisoner of Love” was one of the year’s top hits.
- Total rank score: 1,027
- Total albums: 58
- Top-ranked album: "Bird Blows the Blues" by Charlie Parker
“Miss Martha King” became B.B. King’s debut single in 1949. His first recording effort was held at radio station WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee.
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