As the president-ranking project slowly winds down (only nine left!), I’d like to turn my attention toward some other topics, since the last year has been almost entirely dominated by presidential posts. I mentioned it in a post a month or two ago, but in the future, I’ll be counting down the top 100 architects of modern conservatism and modern liberalism in America, respectively. I will comment on the 2014 midterm elections and the table-setting for the 2016 presidential election as they happen. I will continue to monitor the Rock and Roll Hall of fame and predict the class of 2015 (nominations will come out in October of this year.)
For all this, my next priority is ranking and listing the top 400 songs of perhaps the 20th century’s most prolific decade for popular music, the 1960s. This endeavor is bold, and certain a bit arrogant, but this is, by no means, a definitive ranking. Lots of others have made similar rankings, and I drew on their knowledge and expertise to point me toward songs I never even knew existed.
A question, dear readers, may remain: why 400? Wouldn’t 200 or even 500 be cleaner? 400, to me, represented a happy medium. If limited to 200, a lot of more obscure, less influential, but nonetheless interesting and engaging tracks were left off. When I tried to expand beyond 400 to 500, a lot of songs I wasn’t that enthusiastic about started to make appearances. So, 400 it is.
In doing this, I tried to limit some of the iconic artists. It seems like 40 or so Beatles songs should be on this list, but I capped it to about 15 or so, to allow other artists a chance to make their presence known. Other artists similarly stymied for their own good are The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Who, and, if you can believe it, Nina Simone. One thing that became clear as I compiled this list is how, um…bottom-heavy the 60s are. The first few years of the 1960s were not very good at all until the British Invasion, The Beach Boys, and Motown really reached their peak. By 1960, most of the greats from the 50s were out of the picture: Elvis and the Everlys were in the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Little Richard forsook rock for the gospel, Carl Perkins was reeling from a near-fatal auto crash, and Jerry Lee Lewis was rightly ostracized for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. We were left with a bunch of second-raters, never-weres, squares, posers, instrumental themes from unimpressive movies, and a dreadful number of teen idols named Bobby. By 1969, The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha, Marvin Gaye, Chicago, Hendrix, Three Dog Night, and Pink Floyd were all on the scene. So, the competition isn’t even close; the decade got better and better, musically, as it wore on, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are dozens and dozens of songs from ’69 and ’68 but only a relatively small handful from ’60 and ’61 that make the list.
Also- what do I mean by “song”? Generally, I mean the rock and roll universe, but I generally believe rock and roll to not really be its own genre after 1960 or so, but rather, a common ancestor to what came after: British Invasion, Motown, R&B, soul, punk, funk, soft rock, disco, and so on. All of these genres (or their progenitors) are represented here, and I included a few songs that fell entirely out of the rock spectrum, but existed in a kind of conversation with rock and roll, or had a profound impact on rock and roll in some way- so Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and a few traditional blues artists will make appearances on the list. Of course, most of the songs on this list will be Billboard hits, although some “deep tracks” from obscure albums will certainly show up. I respect the hell out of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and other crooners, but their work is outside of this list’s dojo.
The final question- what do I mean by “best” or greatness? Part of it is musical excellence- a moving vocal performance, a virtuoso guitar solo, a tight ensemble, a memorable hook. At the same time, I also keep an ear toward creativity and innovation– but not so innovative as to become unlistenable (one reason why Frank Zappa and dozens of the weirder psychedelic rock bands are not on the list.) Songs that contributed to the development of new sub genres or synthesized existing styles together will be ranked highly, as did those that best captured the zeitgeist of the times. (When you think of a 60s protest, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” will almost inevitably play in your head; that sort of thing has to count for something.) Simultaneously, pop is still more than represented if it passes the excellence test (which something like “Build Me Up Buttercup” does, but “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro does not.)
So, we’ll soon begin, with 20 postings of 20 songs each. As we go along, post a comment and let me know some of your favorite 1960s songs.
To begin, here’s some stinkers that you can rest assured didn’t make the list:
- SSgt. Barry Sandler- The Ballad of the Green Berets
- Ray Peterson- Tell Laura I Love Her
- Zagger and Evans- In the Year 2525
- Richard Harris- MacArthur Park
- Percy Sledge- When a Man Loves a Woman
- Tiny Tim- Tiptoe Through the Tulips
- Anything by Sonny and Cher
- The Trashmen- Surfin’ Bird
- The Archies- Sugar Sugar
- The Crystals- He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss
- Bobby Goldsboro- Honey
- Victor Lundberg- An Open Letter to My Teenage Son
- Napoleon XIV- They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha haas
- Anything by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
- Anything by Captain Beefheart