Note: This is a national list and many of the items listed are housed in collections across the country. The Library of Congress does not currently hold copies of all the recordings listed.
Recordings are listed in chronological order:
Victor Herbert's 1898 operetta, "The Fortune Teller," was the composer's first popular success for the stage. The Berliner Gramophone Company captured bass Eugene Cowles' performance of one of the operetta's hits, "Gypsy Love Song," on what was one of the very first "original cast recordings."
"Some of These Days." Sophie Tucker. (1911)
Vaudeville singer and comedienne Sophie Tucker first recorded her signature song for the Edison company on cylinder. It was the beginning of a recording career that extended nearly 50 years. This Sheldon Brooks song was an ideal vehicle for the earthy star known as "the Last of the Red-Hot Mamas."
"The Castles in Europe One-Step (Castle House Rag)." Europe's Society Orchestra. (1914)
James Reese Europe was the first black bandleader to record in the United States and was the personal conductor for the immensely popular 1910s dance team, Irene and Vernon Castle. Europe's recordings were important stepping stones in the development of jazz. They exhibit a frenetic quality with more looseness and greater syncopation than is heard in any other dance bands of the era.
"Swanee." Al Jolson. (1920)
George Gershwin and Irving Caesar's song "Swanee" was interpolated into the show "Sinbad" for Al Jolson. The song became Gershwin's first hit and remained associated with Jolson throughout his career. This recording captures the energy of Gershwin's work and Jolson's unique ability to "put over" a song with exuberance.
"See See Rider Blues." Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. (1923)
"Ma" Rainey, called by some "the Mother of the Blues," was a pioneering blues artist whose career began in tent shows and vaudeville. She is credited with influencing many blues singers, most notably Bessie Smith. Although others recorded blues songs before Rainey and had begun to refine the genre, her recordings retain the powerful directness and poignancy that made her famous. Rainey made numerous recordings for the Paramount label; this recording is from a session she recorded with Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson.
Armistice Day broadcast. Woodrow Wilson. (November 10, 1923)
This recording of former President Woodrow Wilson made by phonograph technician Frank L. Capps is the earliest surviving sound recording of a regular radio broadcast. It is also believed to be the earliest known example of a recording made by electrical, rather than acoustic, means.
"Charleston." The Golden Gate Orchestra. (1925)
The musicians on this Edison disc recording included such notable musicians as Red Nichols, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Adrian Rollini. This selection represents the Edison Disc Record Master Mold Collection at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. The Edison Phonograph Works used these metal molds to mass-produce disc records from 1910 to 1929 and, as such, are the generation closest to original wax masters. They are the best-sounding sources for Edison disc recordings, as well as the most archivally stable.
"Fascinating Rhythm." Fred and Adele Astaire; George Gershwin, piano. (1926)
"Lady, Be Good," George and Ira Gershwin's debut Broadway score, produced such standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Oh, Lady Be Good!" The show starred siblings Fred and Adele Astaire. Several songs from the score were recorded in 1926 when the musical was touring in London. The recordings offer an opportunity to appreciate the innocent appeal of Adele, who retired from show business in 1932, and the piano accompaniments of composer George Gershwin.
"Blue Yodel (T for Texas)." Jimmie Rodgers. (1927)
The "blue yodels" of Jimmie Rodgers, the "Father of Country Music," helped to define country music. Rodgers' compositions and recorded performances combined black and white musical forms and popularized American rural music traditions.
"Stardust." Hoagy Carmichael. (1927)
"Stardust" was songwriter Hoagy Carmichael's first great success. It was performed at a rapid tempo when it was first recorded in 1927 by Hoagy Carmichael on piano and His Pals. In later, slower interpretations, "Stardust" became one of the most recorded ballads in jazz and popular repertories. Lyrics were added to the song in 1931.
Charles A. Lindbergh's arrival and reception in Washington, D.C., NBC radio broadcast coverage. (June 11, 1927)
NBC radio's June 11, 1927 coverage of the arrival of Charles A. Lindbergh in Washington D.C. was a landmark technical as well as journalistic achievement for the fledgling network. Radio reporters were stationed at the three locations in Washington to provide successive, live descriptions of the pilot's arrival: the Washington Navy Yard; the procession along Pennsylvania Avenue; and his reception at the foot of the Washington Monument by President Calvin Coolidge.
"Ain't Misbehavin'." Thomas "Fats" Waller. (1929)
"Fats" Waller's solo piano recording of his now-classic composition "Ain't Misbehavin'" preserves the composer's inventive talents as one of jazz's greatest pianists. In this recording Waller took the "stride" piano tradition to a new level of musical expression.
"Gregorio Cortez." Trovadores Regionales. (1929)
This vocal duet with guitar, by Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martinez, is an outstanding example of the "corridos" style of ballad. Reflecting the cultural conflicts between Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans in the American Southwest, it describes the heroics of a vaquero falsely accused of murder. The Vocalion label recording of "Gregorio Cortez" is representative of the significant recordings being preserved in the Arhoolie Foundation's Strachwitz Frontera Collection of commercially-produced Mexican and Mexican-American recordings at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano; Leopold Stokowski, conductor; Philadelphia Orchestra. (1929)
Sergei Rachmaninoff's piano performances of his own compositions are considered by many to be unparalleled. Rachmaninoff first recorded the complete 2nd piano concerto in 1929. Two of its three movements were released on acoustically recorded discs in 1924.
"The Suncook Town Tragedy." Mabel Wilson Tatro of Springfield, Vermont. (July 1930)
This ballad about a New Hampshire tragedy is one of the earliest recordings recorded by Helen Hartness Flanders. She recorded many similar vernacular story-songs in her extensive documentation of the vernacular music of Vermont. Copies of the recording are held by Middlebury College and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Rosina Cohen oral narrative from the Lorenzo D. Turner Collection. (1932)
African-American linguist Lorenzo D. Turner recorded numerous Gullah dialect stories, songs, sermons, and accounts of slavery during the summers of 1932 and 1933. In this oral narrative, Rosina Cohen recounts her memories of slaves being freed by Yankees on Edisto Island. The recording is significant as a permanent record of a vanishing American regional dialect and as a document of African-American cultural history.
“Stormy Weather.” Ethel Waters. (1933)
Ethel Waters began her career as a blues singer but became a pioneer jazz singer, adapting her voice to a conversational style in which the meaning of the song lyrics are conveyed with subtle theatricality. Waters' rendition of "Stormy Weather" became a bestseller, bringing her tremendous exposure and respect as a jazz singer and incomparable interpreter of the American Songbook. “Stormy Weather” composers Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler originally intended their 1933 song to be sung by Cab Calloway in a revue to take place at Harlem's Cotton Club. However, it quickly made its way to Waters instead who then made it her own.
"Body and Soul." Coleman Hawkins. (1939)
An unlikely jukebox hit, this recording by Hawkins was the most popular and influential recording he made and one of the best-known recorded jazz performances in history. Through the influence of this recording, "Body and Soul" became a standard for tenor sax players, with many later recordings referencing parts of Hawkins' solo.
"In the Mood." Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. (1939)
"In the Mood," composed by Joe Garland and Andy Razaf, was one of Glenn Miller's most popular recordings and remains one of the best known musical themes of the World War II era. Miller led one of the most popular dance bands of the swing era. His arrangements were distinguished by a doubled melody on saxophone with a clarinet an octave higher. The sound his band produced was seamless and precise.
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"Peter and the Wolf" (album). Serge Koussevitzky, conductor; Richard Hale, narrator; Boston Symphony Orchestra. (1939)
Composer Sergey Prokofiev brought his "orchestral fairy tale" "Peter and the Wolf" to Moscow audiences in 1936, having composed the music and written the narration as an introduction to orchestral music for children. This premiere recording of the work was performed by the Boston Symphony, under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, with narration by Richard Hale.
An actor known for his rich bass voice, Alexander Scourby began his career in New York as a Shakespearean stage actor but was soon appearing in radio dramas, narrating television documentaries, hosting opera broadcasts, and providing voice-overs for commercials. Recording for the blind for over 40 years, his was the voice of great literature. He recorded the King James version of the Bible for the American Foundation for the Blind, recording all 66 books from 1940 to 1944. It became a bestseller when it was commercially released in 1966 by the American Bible Society.
Edward R. Murrow broadcast from London. (September 21, 1940)
Edward R. Murrow's eyewitness news broadcasts of the Battle of Britain conveyed the emotions and sounds of a city under siege to audiences throughout the United States. One of the best-remembered of that series of 1940 broadcasts was on September 21 when Murrow dispassionately described the bombing of London from a rooftop during the blitzkrieg.
Commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, radio prducer and writer Norman Corwin created "We Hold These Truths." The one-hour drama exploring American values aired one week after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. The broadcast was carried on all four radio networks simultaneously to an audience of more than 60 million listeners, roughly half of the U.S. population at the time. It was the largest audience in history to listen to a dramatic presentation.
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23, B-flat Minor. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Vladimir Horowitz, piano; Arturo Toscanini; conductor; NBC Symphony Orchestra. (April 25, 1943)
To promote the purchase of bonds during World War II, Arturo Toscanini and Vladimir Horowitz donated their services for an Easter Sunday afternoon concert, held at Carnegie Hall on April 25, 1943. The performance raised more than $10 million dollars. The second half of the concert was broadcast by NBC. It consisted of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto "The Nutcracker Suite" and the "Star-Spangled Banner."
"Down by the Riverside." Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (1944)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, considered to be one of the greatest gospel singers of her generation, merged blues and jazz into her performances and influenced many gospel, jazz and rock artists. She sang at John Hammond's historic 1938 concert, "From Spirituals to Swing," in Carnegie Hall, and was a frequent performer in night clubs as well as before religious groups. "Down by the Riverside" captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers.
"U. S. Highball (A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip)" (album). Harry Partch; Gate 5 Ensemble. (1946)
Harry Partch, American composer and instrument maker, said his music was "based on a monophonic system of acoustic intervals and an expandable source scale of more than 40 notes to the so-called scale." He was known for his adaptation and invention of instruments including the chromelodeon, the chordophone, the kitchara, the harmonic canon and the bloboys. "U.S. Highball (A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip)" for chorus and instruments was first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1944. It is an account of a freight train ride from California to Chicago, part of a larger body of work that Partch composed after traveling the country.
"Four Saints in Three Acts" (album). "Original" cast recording. (1947)
Virgil Thomson's opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts," is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest of American operas. Its libretto was written by Gertrude Stein. Selections from the opera were recorded in 1947 by RCA Victor with many of the original cast members and Thomson conducting the orchestra and choir.
"Manteca." Dizzy Gillespie Big Band with Chano Pozo. (1947)
Latin jazz, sometimes called Afro–Cuban jazz, incorporates jazz improvisation with Cuban rhythms. The music strongly emphasizes percussion, using congas, timbales and bongos to supplement piano, guitar or vibes with horns and vocals. A pioneer of this pulsating, infectious sound was Dizzy Gillespie, who was greatly influenced by Chano Pozo, a Cuban singer and drummer. Performing with Gillespie for the first time in 1947, Pozo joined Gillespie's bebop big band and composed "Manteca" with him, later recording it for RCA Victor.
"The Jack Benny Program." (March 28, 1948)
Jack Benny's career started in vaudeville but he soon mastered other show business formats, including radio, television and motion pictures. Benny is best remembered as the parsimonious straight man to his regular cast of characters on radio and television. In a skit broadcast in 1948, Benny was held up by a thief. When asked by the robber, "Your money or your life," Benny paused and eventually replied, "I'm thinking it over."
"Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. (1949)
Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, made this influential recording for Mercury Records on December 11, 1949, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The first of many instrumental hits featuring Scrugg's three-finger banjo picking style, it has set benchmarks for generations of banjo players and bluegrass performers. The 1949 recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was famously featured as chase music in the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde."
"Lovesick Blues." Hank Williams. (1949)
This career-making record became Hank Williams' first number one hit and propelled him from regional success to national stardom. It was this recording which led to Williams being invited to perform on the "Grand Ole Opry." At his first appearance, the "Opry" audience demanded six encores of the song's yodeled closing.
"Guys & Dolls" (album). Original cast recording. (1950)
The Broadway musical fable "Guys & Dolls" is considered to be one of the greatest musical comedies every produced. It features a masterful score by Frank Loesser as well as an excellent book based on the short stories of Damon Runyon. The recording by its original cast preserves aurally many definitive performances of the show's musical treasures, most notably those by Vivian Blaine and Stubby Kaye.
After President Harry S. Truman relieved General Douglas A. MacArthur of duty for a series of public statements that urged the invasion of China and hinted that the President was practicing appeasement, MacArthur was invited to address a joint session of Congress. In spite of the controversy surrounding him, MacArthur speech is noted for its eloquence and effectiveness.
This popular album of satiric songs started as a campus hit at Harvard University where Lehrer was a graduate student in mathematics and a regular area performer. Lehrer has said that he recorded it for $15 for release to his Harvard audience. But despite its minuscule budget, it sold an estimated 370,000 copies. Among the prominent comedians to have claimed Lehrer as an influence are Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Weird Al Yankovic.
"Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)." The Penguins. (1954)
Released as a "B-side," this doo-wop ballad quickly garnered enormous popularity and became one of the first recordings to cross over. It climbed to the number three position on the rhythm-and-blues charts and reached number eight on the pop charts. "Billboard" has termed the single of this song the "top R&B record of all time" measured by continuous popular appeal. The Penguins, a vocal group from Los Angeles that formed in 1954, featured high-school friends Cleveland Duncan (lead), Dexter Tisby (tenor), Bruce Tate (baritone), and Curtis Williams (bass). The recording was released on DooTone, a black-owned and operated label.
"I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man." Muddy Waters. (1954)
Originally recorded in 1941 for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax on a recording expedition through Mississippi, Muddy Waters went on to become an exemplar of Chicago's electric, urban blues style. "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," written by Chess Records mainstay Willie Dixon, was one of Waters' hits. It features a tight band with Dixon on bass, Little Walter on harmonica, Otis Span on piano, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, and Fred Below on drums.
"Tuskegee Institute Choir Sings Spirituals" (album). William L. Dawson, director. (1955)
This recording is significant not only for its powerful performances but also because it presents William L. Dawson's arrangements of spirituals which are still widely used by choirs today. Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute Choir in 1887. Through tours, recordings and broadcasting, the choir reached international fame under the direction of Dawson, who led the choir from 1931 to 1955.
"Messiah" (album). Eugene Ormandy, conductor; Richard Condie, choir director; Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Philadelphia Orchestra. (1958)
The association between the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the best known choral organizations in the United States, and the Philadelphia Orchestra dates back to 1936. This best-selling recording of Handel's oratorio was made during a 1958 choir concert tour. It features Eileen Farrell, Martha Lipton, William Warfield and Cunningham Davis.
"Giant Steps" (album). John Coltrane. (1959)
John Coltrane's lightning-fast runs on this debut recording for Atlantic Records have been described by writer Ira Gitler as "sheets of sound." In characteristic fashion, Coltrane plays phrases forward, backwards and upside down, exhausting the possible permutations of a motive before proceeding. These fast runs signal Coltrane's movement away from a chordal approach to jazz in favor of a more scalar approach. "Giant Steps" contains seven original compositions by Coltrane, many of which have gone on to become jazz standards.
"Drums of Passion" (album). Michael Babatunde Olatunji. (1960)
Nigerian drummer Michael Babatunde Olatunji came to the United States in the early 1960s and released several popular and influential drumming albums. Musicians as varied as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, and Carlos Santana have all noted Olatunji's virtuosity or counted him as an influence. "Drums of Passion" features traditional Nigerian drumming with Western choral arrangements in songs written by Olatunji. It was many Americans' first exposure to Nigerian drumming.
"Peace Be Still" (album). James Cleveland. (1962)
This enormously successful gospel recording influenced many later groups and remains an excellent example of gospel performance. Rev. Cleveland, a protege of Thomas A. Dorsey and Roberta Martin, was himself a pioneer gospel recording artist, and the first to make a live gospel album. "Peace Be Still" features keyboardist Billy Preston and the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey.
"The Girl from Ipanema." Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Astrud Gilberto. (1963)
This instantly recognizable performance popularized the melodic, samba-based, Brazilian bossa nova sound in the U.S. Guitarist and song composer Antonio Carlos Jobim teamed with saxophonist Stan Getz and Gilberto's wife, vocalist Astrud Gilberto, to create this sensuous recording.
"Live at the Apollo" (album). James Brown. (1963)
James Brown's best-selling "Live at the Apollo" remains significant for presenting his incandescent performances of "I'll Go Crazy," "Think" and "Night Train." At the time of its release, none of Brown's prior studio albums had done justice to his dynamic performance style. With this album a wider audience became familiar with his velocity and showmanship.
"Pet Sounds" (album). The Beach Boys. (1966)
Departing from the Beach Boys surf-music roots, "Pet Sounds" was an emotive and carefully planned recording that attempted to present an album as a unified work and not merely a collection of singles. The album is notable for Brian Wilson's lead vocals and the harmonizing support from the other band members. Equally compelling are the melodies and the arrangements, the latter featuring, among other instruments, horns, strings, theremin, accordion and a glockenspiel. The album has proven to be the most complete statement of Wilson's musical and lyrical aesthetic. Paul McCartney has remarked on several occasions that it is his favorite album.
The landing of Apollo 11 on the moon had the world glued to its television set, yet the most enduring memories of the achievement are aural: "Houston. Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.... I'm going to step off the LEM now. That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." These words, first broadcast from the moon, have become some of the most recognizable and memorable sentences spoken in United States history.
"The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East" (album). The Allman Brothers Band. (1971)
This classic live performance of southern blues rock contains a powerfully emotional rendition of "Whipping Post" sung by Gregg Allman. That song became a touring standard for the band while the album received wide acclaim for its lengthy improvisational jams featuring the distinctive dual lead guitars of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts.
"Star Wars" (album). John Williams. (1977)
This soundtrack score has been credited with reviving symphonic film scores in Hollywood motion pictures. The recording was a bestseller, its themes well remembered and often quoted. When the blockbuster motion picture was released in 1977, home video did not exist; hence, it was the soundtrack recording which enabled audiences to evoke images from the film in their living rooms.
Recordings of Asian elephants. Katharine B. Payne. (1984)
Katharine B. Payne's recordings of Asian elephants revealed that the animals use infrasonic sounds to communicate with one another. Such acoustic monitoring of the mammals has provided important insights into the mechanisms by which matrilineal groups of elephants maintain distance among one another over time and how males locate receptive females. In addition, the use of recordings has proven a very effective method for surveying populations of elephants. It has opened new windows into the complex lives of elephants and provided a tool for conservation. The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University holds this important collection.
"Fear of a Black Planet" (album). Public Enemy. (1990)
"Fear of a Black Planet" brought hip hop respect from critics, millions of new fans, and a passionate debate over its political content. The album signaled the coupling of a strongly political message with hip hop music. Its hit single, "Fight the Power," was the theme for Spike Lee's powerful film, "Do the Right Thing." Public Enemy forged a new sound for hip hop that included funk rhythms, samples from James Brown and Eric Clapton, and "found" sounds.
"Nevermind" (album). Nirvana. (1991)
This surprising chartbuster from a grunge band from Aberdeen, Washington, brought to the public's attention a new, heavily distorted sound that would catch on and prove an enduring influence in rock. Characterized by raw vocals, driving rhythms and surprising shifts in dynamics, the record resonated with America's youth and climbed to number one on the "Billboard" charts, selling over 10 million copies.