The Greatest Albums of the 1930s
By the 1930s, most American households owned a radio. This dramatic increase in mass media was a unifying experience for both musicians and listeners alike, and popular music now encompassed a wide combination of disparate genres. It’s no surprise, then, that the Greatest Albums of the 1930s features a combination of jazz, blues, swing and country.
Even though radio greatly expanded music’s possibilities, the toll of the Great Depression severely stunted the recording industry at large. That’s one reason why this list is so small — albums as we know them today simply weren’t being made in the ‘30s.
Nevertheless, the “albums” featured here are a great representation of this transitional chapter in modern music history (although the Colin’s Review 50 Best Songs of the 1930s is far more all-encompassing).
And so without further ado, here are my picks for the (five) Greatest “Albums” of the 1930s.
5. Cowboy Songs
Artist: Bing Crosby
Originally released as a six-single set by Decca Records in 1939, this collection of Western-themed pop songs recorded from 1935–39 was Bing Crosby’s first solo compilation. On record, he could do no wrong — his intimate style of close mic’d crooning was perfectly adaptable to any setting. After hearing these incredibly lush and touching arrangements, you’d never guess his personal life was so turbulent.
Crosby makes these Cowboy Songs relatable to every listener: “Missouri Waltz” is incredibly catchy, “Twilight on the Trail” was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s all-time favorite song and even “Home on the Range” — the “unofficial anthem” of the American West — is empathetic toward everyone.
Whether he was singing cowboy songs, Christmas carols or the music of Hawaii, Crosby was the rare singer who possessed a universal appeal. Every tune on this early album is filled with genuine sincerity.
4. Bessie Smith Album
Artist: Bessie Smith
Genre: Vaudeville Blues
Released one year after her tragic death in 1937, the Bessie Smith Album is a posthumous compilation featuring classic blues recordings from her 1920s heyday, with definitive renditions of “St. Louis Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Time Tonight.”
Smith’s dynamic stage presence translates perfectly to the studio, and her jubilant vocals and jazzy arrangements paved the way for generations of pop artists to come. There’s a reason she was called the Empress of the Blues — nobody else in the history of the genre possessed such confidence and sovereign liberation.
3. Negro Sinful Songs
Artist: Lead Belly
Genre: Country Blues
Born in 1888, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was one of the original country blues musicians. However, he spent much of his life in and out of various penitentiaries throughout the South on counts of murder, assault and attempted homicides. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that Lead Belly was one of the era’s great musicians. Negro Sinful Songs is a brilliant showcase of Lead Belly’s wide-ranging repertoire, from a cappella work songs to full-bodied folk ballads.
2. King of the Delta Blues Singers
Artist: Robert Johnson
Genre: Delta Blues
Robert Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for supernatural guitar-playing abilities. The bargain worked: Johnson quickly became the most talented blues musician who ever lived. However, in true Faustian fashion, he saw very little commercial success and died at the age of 27 from a suspected poisoning.
For all intents and purposes, Johnson can be called the very first rock star, not only in his mythos but also his music. He pushed the Delta blues to its absolute limit, generating an electrifying, all-encompassing sound backed only with the power of his voice and the creativity of his guitar (Keith Richards famously asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?”). Johnson’s elaborate riffs and rhythms — along with his ear for wide-ranging melody — provided the template for early rock ‘n’ roll.
The King of the Delta Blues Singers collection is an essential piece of American history, directly linking the old-school Delta era to the plugged-in sounds of Chicago. Johnson’s music is simultaneously ancient and modern, earthy and electric, raw and refined, and he remains the greatest blues artist of all time.
1. The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert
Artist: Benny Goodman
The evening of January 16, 1938 was a turning point in musical history. This was the night that jazz was legitimized. In a concert venue strictly reserved for classical recitals, a raucous swing band came in and tore the house down. People were dancing in the aisles and begging for encores. At long last, jazz music had “officially” become mainstream.
Not that “mainstream” is a bad thing — the performance of the Benny Goodman band on The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert is completely deserving of its accolades. Both in sound and sequencing, Goodman and his cohorts deliver two-hours of pure bliss, showcasing everything that jazz had to offer.
They open the night with swing standards (and special guest Count Basie), then trace the genre’s origins from ragtime to Dixieland. Soon enough, they deliver a 16-minute “Honeysuckle Rose” jam session that features the world’s only rhythm guitar solo. Popular singer Martha Tilton rounds out the first hour and comes back later for a rousing encore. Johnny Hodges and Lester Young trade sax solos with Goodman’s lyrical clarinet. A showstopping “Sing Sing Sing” jam session finishes the proceedings, but the crowd demands not one, but two more encore performances. The concert ends, but the impact lives on forever.
It’s no stretch to say that The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert is the greatest live album ever recorded, both in music and magnitude. The audience is a perfect stand-in for the cultural climate of the era — an initial tepid reaction giving way to uninhibited enthusiasm.