And I welcome you to the first part of our countdown, where we determine the greatest songs from that most pivotal of decades, the 1960s.
400. “Kick Out the Jams”– MC5 (1969): Loud, brash, and undisciplined, this group worked in the White Panther Party, shouted revolutionary slogans during concerts, and went to Chicago to disrupt the Democratic Convention in 1968 with John Sinclair. “Kick out the Jams” shows how their amateurish musicianship anticipated the anarchy of the DIY movement and, of course, punk.
399. “Sheila”– Tommy Roe (1962): Buddy Holly didn’t live to see the 1960s, but this charming, but deeply derivative ditty by copycat Tommy Roe is a close enough approximation to what he might have sounded like in 1962.
398. “I Like My Toys”- Idle Race (1968): Believe it or not, Jeff Lynne was actively emulating The Beatles long before the Electric Light Orchestra tuned up. The Idle Race was his first project as a teenager, and their first release was a concept album about a child’s birthday party. From the “Penny Lane”-ish bells to the McCartneyesque sense of levity to the Harrison slide guitar, Lynne’s hero worship for The Beatles is evident from the start.
397. “Turn Your Love Light On”- Bobby Bland (1961): Bland is one of the most obscure rock and roll hall of famers, but this track gives credence to a great voice, and it sets the table for the direction soul music would take later in the 1960s as it developed. He reaches deep into the gospel idiom to produce a pretty amazing record.
396. “Dominique”- The Singing Nun (1962): The tale of the Singing Nun is surprisingly sad, but that shouldn’t take away from this surprise hit song, the only foreign language number (I think) in my top 400. One thing I do love about the early 60s is that the talent pool was so thin that a French song about a Dominican friar performed on the acoustic guitar by a nun could make it to #1.
395. “Give Peace a Chance”- John Lennon (1969): Recorded in a bed during his Montreal honeymoon with Yoko Ono, this is Lennon’s clever wordplay at its best, a series of rapid-fire verses with an inane and eminently singable chorus. Small wonder that nearly every peace march since has adopted this song. I love how Lennon was still so committed to his partnership to Paul in ’69 that he still credited his first solo record as a Lennon-McCartney release even though Paul didn’t write a word or note of it.
394. “Freedom Trilogy”- Odetta (1963): Odetta was a national treasure; one of the premier muses of the civil rights movement who performed at the March on Washington, an honor she shared Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. This is possibly her finest hour, taking her blues and folks background directly through the old black spirituals just as the civil rights movement was at its highest ebb. This is a staggering track, one that played a role in shaping American history.
393. “Creeque Alley”- The Mamas and the Papas (1967): This is a strikingly self-referential track, telling the tale of the group’s formation, and its connections to the others in New York’s folk scene, replete with cameo appearances by members of the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful.
392. “A Little Less Conversation”- Elvis Presley (1968): By the mid-60s, Elvis was trapped in a never-ending cycle of making cheap, badly written movies with hastily written soundtracks. Artistically, he had been certifiably dead since he joined the army, but sparks of life and mischief and energy can be seen in this track, peering out of his creative morass, his lethargy, and his diet of fried banana sandwiches. “Lilo and Stitch” gave this track new life several years ago.
391. “I Wanna Be Your Dog”- The Stooges (1969): One more proto-punk song I feel obligated to include because of its massive influence on the development of the genre. Rugged, uncompromising, and committed to its juvenility, Iggy Pop makes a startling debut on record.
390. “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”- Arthur Alexander (1961): Arthur Alexander was one of Lennon’s favorite artists (“Anna” from the first Beatles LP was one of his tunes.) His knack as a tunesmith is evident here, despite the god-awful production (loud brass, abrasive female backup singers), but there was enough in this track to lament that Alexander was one of his era’s lost treasures. In fact, Alexander is the only artist to have had his songs recorded by The Beatles, The Stones AND Dylan.
389. “The Wolf of Velvet Fortune”- The Beau Brummels (1967): Better known for their 1966 hit “Laugh Laugh”, the Brummels made perhaps the first foray into fantasy themes on the psychedelic heels of Sgt. Pepper. Animal metaphors, experimental instrumentation, inchoate lyrics– I’m amazed that this isn’t pegged as the first progressive rock song. I’m also still trying to figure out of the title is a euphemism for something.
388. “Questions 67 & 68”- Chicago (1969): Bold as, well, brass, Chicago made its first release a double album forcing first-time listeners to make a commitment. This one paid off; the best track combines Robert Lamm’s thoughtful songwriting and Peter Cetera’s soaring tenor. But it is the rhythm section- Terry Kath on guitar, Cetera on bass, and Danny Seraphine on drums, that anchor this magnificent and stately song, which unfortunately tanked as a 45-rpm single.
387. “I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In”- First Edition (1968): Before he ever sold a single piece of roast chicken, before he ever became The Gambler, Kenny Rogers was hanging out with the Smothers Brothers and released this psychedelic hit.
386. “Be Not Too Hard”- Joan Baez (1967): Baez’s warm earnestness penetrates this song, an ode to grace with a social conscience. And by “earnest”, of course, I mean speaking the first verse in lieu of singing a third verse.
385. “Give Me Love”- Rosie & the Originals (1960): Speaking of songs that Lennon took a liking too, this was also one of his early favorites. The flip side of a minor hit “Angel Baby,” Rosie attempts to sing it in a deeper, masculine style, in the midst of a boogie-woogie backdrop with a persistent electric guitar part. It’s one of the strangest girl-group records ever made; insistent and over-bearing in fascinating ways.
384. “Shantytown”- Desmond Dekker (1967): There’s a fair bit of proto-reggae on this list, including this track by Dekker. A great example of commercially viable ska, its also a useful window into the rudeboy subculture from that time in Jamaica’s history.
383. “Monster Mash”- Bobby Boris Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (1962): Every novelty hit forever afterwards was held up to this standard. Capitalizing on the popularity of “Mashed Potato Time,” the creative production and sound effects and Pickett’s spot-on Boris Karloff impression makes this a delight to hear every October. Well, the first couple of times, anyway.
382. “San Antonio Rose”- Willie Nelson (1966): Just like Kenny Rogers wasn’t the Gambler yet, Willie Nelson was the country rebel or the Red Haired Stranger. Still, Nelson’s finding his way beautifully here, with a confident vocal with a horn section break appropriate to the tune’s setting.
381. “Draft Dodger Rag”- Chad Mitchell Trio (1964): Written by Phil Ochs, this was recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio years after Chad Mitchell abandoned ship, and one of its members was a very young John Denver. The song is uproariously funny, and a good example of how Tom Lehrer’s satire (think “Vatican Rag”) had a larger impact on popular music. It works perfectly in the folk idiom with great comic timing to suggest that the guy desperately getting out of service might have been the real protagonist of the Vietnam farce.