The Best Albums of the JFK Presidency

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Sinatra's inaugural ball on the evening of Inauguration Day. (Abbie Rowe, National Park Service - John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated was also the day that the Beatles’ second album, With the Beatles, was released. The band’s first album, Please Please Me, had been released a mere eight months earlier. Although his short presidency (less than three years) barely overlapped with the Beatles-led British Invasion, some excellent music was released during JFK’s administration. Bands and musicians like Roy Orbison (Crying), The Beach Boys (Surfin’ USA), Jimmy Smith (Back at the Chicken Shack), The Trashmen (Surfin’ Bird), and Booker T. and the M.G.’s (Green Onions) were near or at the top of their recording game. Proving the greatness of the music released during JFK’s time in office, none of those aforementioned albums crack the following list of the best albums released during JFK’s time in office.


8. Surfer’s Choice — Dick Dale and His Del-Tones

Who knew that laid-back surfers could wreak such havoc on their amps and guitars? Quoting the Dick Dale website:

Leo Fender gave the Fender Stratocaster along with a Fender Amp to Dale and told him to beat it to death and tell him what he thought of it. Dale took the guitar and started to beat it to death, and he blew up Leo Fender’s amp and blew out the speaker. Dale proceeded to blow up forty nine amps and speakers; they would actually catch on fire.

That quote explains why the father of surf-rock is also considered by some the father of heavy metal. Regardless of his place in heavy metal history, Surfers’ Choice represents the birth of a genre that influenced not only music but culture in general. 


7. Peter, Paul and Mary — Peter, Paul and Mary

Part of the folk renaissance, Peter, Paul and Mary, the debut album from the group of the same name, is filled with lush and comforting harmonies to complement the familiar melodies. That being said, perched on our 21st-century tree of cynicism, it can be hard to see and appreciate the subversiveness of folk bands like Peter, Paul and Mary.

6. The Genius Sings the Blues — Ray Charles

Not just anyone sings the blues on this album; a genius sings the blues. Before you are tempted to raise an inward eyebrow in contemplation of whether or not that claim crosses into hubristic, try this – listen to the album without looking up Ray Charles’ birth date, and guess how old he was when he recorded this album (hint: much of it was recorded a decade before the album’s release). Youth and earned gravitas rarely go hand in hand, but like President Kennedy, Ray Charles demonstrated ability and forward thinking beyond his age, which would be further demonstrated in less than a year on an even better album.


5. Monk’s Dream – Thelonious Monk

Few piano players have tickled the sexy out of the keys better than Thelonious Monk. Combine his skills with that of three other jazz musicians who were at the top of their game (Charlie Rouse, John Ore, and Frankie Dunlop), seamlessly weaving complex runs and fills around Monk’s innovative piano rhythms, and it’s little wonder that one of the greatest and most recognizable jazz albums of all time was produced.


4. Please Please Me — the Beatles

The better of the two albums released by the Beatles during 1963, Please Please Me features a great cover of “Twist and Shout.” Featuring the young band’s exuberance, the cover is also noted for the raggedness of John Lennon’s voice, which had been affected by the pop star’s bad cold.  The debut album from what many consider the greatest band of all time sounds as fresh today as it did in 1963.

3. Live at the Apollo — James Brown

Opening this shimmering scorcher of an album, the question, “So, now, ladies and gentleman, it is star time. Are you ready for star time?” is answered by the shrieking females in the audience. If you have ever doubted or simply wondered about the appeal of James Brown, find a porch swing on a hot, humid August day, place a tall glass of sweet tea on the porch rail, and allow the sweat to be propelled down the side of your face by the force and heat emanating from Live at the Apollo. The album isn’t long but it packs a soulful punch.



2. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — Bob Dylan

On Bob Dylan’s second album, the troubadour married classic tunes with his pointed contemporary lyrics. Curious about the existential angst produced by the Cuban missile crisis? “Hard Rain” is Dylan’s desperate poetry that reflects his belief that he was about to die. In his words, “Every line in it is a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”

1. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music — Ray Charles

James Meredith stated that President Kennedy’s inaugural address was one of the motivators that empowered him to sue the University of Mississippi in May of 1962. Meredith claimed that the university had rejected him based solely on race. That fall, moving past exerting pressure on Governor Barnett through phone calls, President Kennedy activated 500 U.S. marshalls supported by the National Guard. A violent riot broke out. That same turbulent and bloody year saw the release of Ray Charles’ masterpiece Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. With much of the country swirling with mistrust and violence, Ray Charles expertly married the music of the two sides into one of the most beautiful albums of the modern era.


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