The National Recording Registry

Who gets to decide what a classic is?

We don’t often think of librarians as powerful people, but by choosing what to preserve, librarians can stitch history from a grab bag of remnants. Especially if those librarians work at the Library of Congress and they’ve been charged with carrying out the dictates of the National Recording Preservation Act.

Just what is the National Recording Preservation Act? Well, our old friend Alan Kennedy, former music industry insider and musical trivia nonpareil, is here to tell us.

The National Recording Registry

by Alan Kennedy

My son Devon, 16, has recently gotten interested in the music of the 1960’s. He’s spent the last few months immersing himself in the music of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead, among others. I love this music too, so I enjoy talking about it with him and giving him my two cents. While looking around the web recently to learn more about the Grateful Dead album “American Beauty”, Devon found a mention on a website that the song “Truckin'” was designated a national treasure by the Library of Congress. He asked me if I had heard about that. I hadn’t, but I was curious to know more about these designations – like who was making them, what songs were being designated as such, and what the criteria were.

It turns out that our Library of Congress maintains an archive which preserves audio recordings considered important for future generations – not surprising – but which includes recent music recordings. The “National Recording Preservation Act of 2000” was established to “develop a national program to guard America’s sound recording heritage”. As part of this act, the National Recording Registry and a National Recording Preservation Board were formed. The registry’s job is to maintain and preserve sound recordings which are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Beginning in 2002, this board began selecting nominated recordings each year to be preserved. The recordings must be at least ten years old.

A lot of what they designate is stuff you’d expect – early Thomas Edison recordings, MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, etc. There are also comedy routines and folk, jazz, country, gospel, Broadway cast album, and classical music recordings. But fans of rock and pop music like me may be interested to know that songs and albums from the rock ‘n roll era (post-1955) make it in there too. Here is a list of rock, pop, and R&B music recordings deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” – so far:

Elvis Presley Sun Records Sessions 1955
Carl Perkins “Blue Suede Shoes” (single) 1955
Little Richard “Tutti Frutti” (single) 1955
Chuck Berry “Roll Over Beethoven” (single) 1956
Fats Domino “Blueberry Hill” (single) 1956
Howlin’ Wolf` “Smokestack Lightning (single) 1956
Jerry Lee Lewis “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” (single) 1957
The Crickets “That’ll Be The Day” (single) 1957
Link Wray “Rumble” (single) 1958
Ray Charles “What’d I Say” parts 1 & 2 (singles) 1959
Etta James “At Last” (single) 1961
Bob Dylan “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (album) 1963
James Brown “Live at the Apollo” (album) 1963
The Ronettes “Be My Baby” (single) 1963
Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Street” (single) 1964
Roy Orbison “Oh, Pretty Woman” (single) 1964
Otis Redding “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (single) 1965
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles “The Tracks of My Tears” (single) 1965
The Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (single) 1965
Sam Cooke “A Change is Gonna Come” (single) 1965
B.B. King “Live at the Regal” (album) 1965
The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” (album) 1966
The Who “The Who Sings My Generation” (album) 1966
The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (album) 1967
The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced” (album) 1967
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention “We’re Only In It For The Money” (album) 1967
The Velvet Underground and Nico “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (album) 1967
Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison” (album) 1968
The Band “The Band” (album) 1969
Captain Beefheart “Trout Mask Replica” (album) 1969
Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On?” (album) 1971
The Allman Brothers Band “At Fillmore East”(album) 1971
Carole King “Tapestry” (album) 1971
Al Green “Let’s Stay Together” (single) 1971
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” (album) 1972
Joni Mitchell “For the Roses” (album) 1972
Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run” (album) 1975
Patti Smith “Horses” (album) 1975
Steve Wonder “Songs in the Key of Life” 1976
John Williams “Star Wars” (soundtrack album) 1977
Steely Dan “Aja” (album) 1977
R.E.M. “Radio Free Europe” (single) 1981
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five “The Message” (single) 1982
Michael Jackson “Thriller” (album) 1982
Paul Simon “Graceland” (album) 1986
Sonic Youth “Daydream Nation” (album) 1988
De La Soul “3 Feet High and Rising” (album) 1989
Public Enemy “Fear of a Black Planet” (album) 1990
Nirvana “Nevermind” (album) 1991
Tupac Shakur “Dear Mama” (single) 1995

I’m surprised to see non-American artists on there like the British Invasion groups and Joni Mitchell, but I guess their influence on U.S. culture was deemed significant enough to justify their inclusion. Oddly, no Grateful Dead song is actually on the list!

The full list so far can be found at

6 thoughts on “The National Recording Registry”

  1. Hi Alan. It’s hard to argue about the inclusion of most of those singles and albums. As you know, I’m not a rap/hip-hop fan, so I can’t say whether those items are worthy, but the remainder of that list includes nothing but classics. Of course, there are probably dozens or hundreds more that are equally deserving of this honor, but unlike the ridiculous Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (which has excluded some huge names from even being nominated while inducting non-rock ‘n’ roll artists), the Library Of Congress seems to have the right idea.

    Also, it’s always nice to hear when youngsters like Devon are interested in the music that inspired previous generations, even though I’m sure he also enjoys contemporary artists. One of the positive things about the rise of music on the internet and the decline of the music “industry” is that people (especially kids) are more open to all kinds of music, and not just what’s shoved down their throats by record companies & radio stations.

    Thanks for sharing this information.
    Best wishes,

  2. Rich,

    I can attest to the classic status of the hip-hop albums within their genre. The only thing that seems notable by its absence is The Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” from 1993. Also, usually when Tupac is mentioned, The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 “Ready to Die” is paired with it.

    The only other albums I can think of that would be particularly important don’t really show up until the late 90s.

  3. Also notably absent from the list: The classic Gordon Lightfoot single “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, also known as the greatest make-out song of all time.

  4. Several people who have read this have e-mailed me directly (rather than commented in this space here) with impressions about the list – I think people might be interested to hear some observations:

    1. If Beatles/Stones/Who, why no Led Zeppelin?
    (I’m inclined to agree).
    2. If Martha Reeves and Smokey Robinson, why no
    Diana Ross and the Supremes? (fair point)
    3. Why “Radio Free Europe” rather than the album it came from, “Murmur”? (good question)
    4. The Eagles “Greatest Hits” is the best selling album ever in the U.S. Wouldn’t that alone qualify it as “culturally significant” and suitable for this list?
    (I see the point, but maybe their work fell short of the “influential” quality that most of the other records seem to have?)
    5. Who are Sonic Youth and why are they so awesome that they’re deemed one of only 7 acts from the 1980’s to qualify so far? Couldn’t they have least chosen something by Madonna? (I know who Sonic Youth are, and this point is disputable, but interesting…)
    6. Where are The Ramones? They INVENTED PUNK!
    (where indeed!)

    Keep the comments coming! Thanks!
    – Alan

  5. I was surprised to see an artist on the list that I’d never heard (Link Wray). Checked out “Rumble” and knew the song but had never heard of the artist. Consider me enlightened!

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