13 Albums Turning 50 in 2021 That (I Think) You Should Know

13 Albums Turning 50 in 2021 That (I Think) You Should Know

Anna Fellman, Contributing Writer

Imagine: John Lennon

Following the official breakup of the Beatles in 1970, John Lennon released his second studio album Imagine, with its eponymous track being a powerful anthem of peace and love during the era of the Vietnam War. Lennon’s former bandmate George Harrison contributed to about ten songs on the album, notably including “How Do You Sleep At Night?,” Lennon’s attack on another former bandmate, Paul McCartney.

Songs to listen to: “Imagine,” “Jealous Guy,” “How Do You Sleep At Night?,” “Oh Yoko!”

Pearl: Janis Joplin

A vocal powerhouse with an electric stage presence, Janis Joplin died four months before Pearl’s official release in January of 1971 (making her a member of the 27 Club). One of the album’s most well-known hits — a cover of the song Me and Bobby McGee — reached the top of the Billboard charts later that year and stayed there for almost two months.

Songs to listen to: “Move Over,” “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Trust Me”

Bryter Layter: Nick Drake

This album is quite the hidden gem. With a backstory as tragic as British folk singer Nick Drake’s, the mix of upbeat and melodic instrumentals on this album may come as a surprise. The second of three total albums, Bryter Layter only gained recognition following Drake’s passing in 1974; its initial commercial failure is thought to have been one of the main catalysts for the musician’s struggle with depression throughout his career.

Songs to listen to: “Hazey Jane II,” “One Of These Things First,” “Fly,” “Bryter Layter,” “Hazey Jane I”

What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye

What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album released by soul singer Marvin Gaye from the perspective of a Vietnam War veteran returning home to a country filled with injustice and hatred. With the album’s realized song cycle and seamless transitions between tracks, you won’t even realize you’ve been listening to different songs until the album is over!

Songs to listen to: “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “What’s Happening Brother,” “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”

Who’s Next: The Who

The Who’s hard rock album Who’s Next originally started as a science fiction rock-opera project entitled Lighthouse. Abandoning the original to create a more traditional rock album ultimately played in the band’s favor, with the album’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” landing on Billboard’s top 100 songs of the year in 1971.

Songs to listen to: “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Led Zeppelin IV: Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album was also the band’s best selling, cited frequently as one of the greatest musical works of all time for its tens of millions of album sales worldwide. Featuring “Stairway to Heaven” (often thought to be the band’s magnus opus), the album was mainly recorded in the country house Headley Grange in England.

Songs to listen to: “Black Dog,” “Going to California,” “Rock and Roll,” “Stairway to Heaven” 

Nilsson Schmilsson: Harry Nilsson

Falling under the umbrella of the pop-rock genre, Harry Nilsson’s seventh studio album Nilsson Schmilsson was his best-selling and most recognizable work, producing three of his most famous songs. The album features a variety of different styles within his musical range, running the gambit from classic rock ‘n roll to slower, more melodic ballads.

Songs to listen to: “Without You,” “Coconut,” “Gotta Get Up,” “Jump Into the Fire”

Sticky Fingers: The Rolling Stones

This album was the Rolling Stones’ first release under their own label, Rolling Stone Records. Sticky Fingers hit the top of the charts within days of its release, and is now thought of as a paramount rock and roll classic.

Songs to listen to: “Wild Horses,” “Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”

Hunky Dory: David Bowie

David Bowie’s fourth studio album Hunky Dory was a shift from his former hard rock style to a softer pop, with Bowie opting to write music on the piano as opposed to the guitar like on his earlier tracks. With classics such as “Changes” and “Life on Mars?,” it came as a shock to many when Hunky Dory failed to chart. It was only following the release of his next and fifth studio album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders on Mars, that the album began receiving the attention it deserved. 

Songs to listen to: “Changes,” “Life on Mars?,” “Oh! You Pretty Things”

American Pie: Don McLean

American Pie is one of those songs that you don’t realize you know all the words to until you find yourself instinctively singing along to all eight, blissful minutes. A tribute to longtime idol Buddy Holly following his passing, the album boasts a distinctive folk sound, which is especially realized through softer, more stripped-back tracks like “Empty Chairs” and “Vincent.” 

Songs to listen to: “American Pie,” “Vincent,” “Crossroads”

Blue: Joni Mitchell

After taking a break from performing in 1970, Joni Mitchell took a vacation around Europe where she began writing her most famous album, Blue. Highly regarded as one of the best musical works of all time, this compilation of heartbreaking ballads shows Mitchell’s vulnerability in her craft.

Songs to listen to: “A Case of You,” “California,” “River,” “All I Want,” “Carey”

John Prine: John Prine

Despite never making it past the #55 spot on the Billboard chart, John Prine’s self-titled country-folk debut album is thought to be one of the best albums of all time. Prine’s impressive music career lasted almost 50 years until his death from COVID-19 last spring. 

Songs to listen to: “Angel from Montgomery,” “Spanish Pipedream,” “Hello in There”

Just As I Am: Bill Withers

Bill Withers’ debut album is the perfect blend of soul and folk. Featuring a couple of covers among Withers’ originals, Just As I Am spotlights Stephen Stills (from Crosby, Stills & Nash) on guitar. Combined with Withers’ smooth vocals and soulful arrangements, the dynamic duo landed “Ain’t No Sunshine” on Billboard’s Top 100 for the year of 1971.

Songs to listen to: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Harlem”