360. “Come Together”– The Beatles (1969): This song is maybe the coolest in The Beatles’ catalog, full of Lennon’s snarky character observations, completely untethered from its throwaway chorus, and also features some of the best bass-playing of Paul McCartney’s career. It would rank higher if the melody wasn’t completely plagiarized from a B-list Chuck Berry tune, “You Can’t Catch Me.”
359. “Nowhere to Run”– Martha Reeves & the Vandellas (1965): 1965 was a great year, but believe it or not, this is our first track from that annum mirabilis to appear on our list (remember, ’65 gave us both “Satisfaction” and “Yesterady” among many others.). In the Motown hit factory, Reeves was celebratory and exuberant while Diana Ross was sultry and demure. The Vandellas were, I think, the better group, but they weren’t given the best material, since Ross was sleeping with Motown president Berry Gordy and Martha Reeves was not.
358. “Feeling Good”– Nina Simone (1965): Simone’s work is full of heartbreak and bitterness, but this track proves the adage that living well is always the best revenge.
357. “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”– Neil Sedaka (1962): Sedaka was perhaps the least irritating of the early 60s teen idols. I always appreciated how Sedaka wasn’t mass-marketed, and frequently showed up at television appearances in dorky haircuts and ugly sweaters. At least he wrote his own material, which the likes of Frankie Avalon can’t say. (Frankie Avalon, by the way, is my watchword for “everything wrong with the early 1960s music scene.”) Anyway, this track has one of the great ear-worm melodies of the era, with an infectious “Down-dooby-doo down-down” vocal riff following it throughout. It’s a standout track from one of pop’s bleakest eras.
356. “The Tide is High”– The Paragons (1967): Admit it, you thought the folks in Blondie wrote this, didn’t you? As it turns out, its a ska track by a short-lived Jamaican group whose fuzzy 60s production actually fits the song quite a bit better than Blondie’s late-70s mariachi treatment.
355. “Wedding Bell Blues”– The 5th Dimension (1969): For years, I thought this track was on the Hair soundtrack or something, because its so theatrical, and you can see it being played out on stage. Another great testament to Laura Nyro’s ability to write soul numbers so persuasively that one of the era’s preeminent black vocal groups took the song up eagerly.
354. “Sweet Cherry Wine”– Tommy James & the Shondells (1969): This song isn’t a radio staple like “Crimon and Clover” or “Draggin’ the Line”, but in a way its the most historically significant song the band recorded. By the late 60s, James and the crew were breaking free of the mafia and finding a born-again faith. This song reflects these changes (“sweet cherry wine” is, of course, a metaphor for the blood of Christ), and you can argue that its the first Christian Contemporary song ever recorded.
353. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”– Simon & Garfunkel (1966): I’m a big sucker for counterpoint. Paul Simon arranges something poignant and beautiful with this track from the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme album. He anticipates the baroque direction popular music would take in the next year, and oozes the song with the best elements of folk: beautiful acoustic instrumentation, a reverence for our musical heritage, and a biting social message.
352. “Hide Away”– Freddie King (1960): They say that there were three kings of the blues: B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King. “Hide Away” is a great transition point between earlier Chicago blues and the rock instrumental.
351. “A Hard Day’s Night”– The Beatles (1964): That opening chord changed music forever. That F-add-9 is loaded with anticipation, which is rewarded with one of the most energetic and focused of the early Beatles hits, and introduced the 12-string guitar to the pop lexicon.
350. “Groovin'”– The Rascals (1967): It rivals the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” as the most mellow hit of the 1960s. This tribute to weekend laziness is expertly served by Felix Cavaliere’s easy blue-eyed soul vocals.
349. “Okie from Muskogee”– Merle Haggard (1969): Is the song an earnest ode to old-fashioned, rural American virtue? Or is it an especially clever satire of insular middle America? In a way the song reminds me of the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall: scholars still can’t figure out whether he was a brilliant parody of a bad poet, or an actual prodigiously bad poet. In the same fashion, one can’t quite tell whether Haggard is extolling or ridiculing his song’s Okies. He played it before country audiences who took it seriously, but he also performed it deadpan on the Smothers Brothers’ show, and plenty of countercultural acts have taken the song in as their own. Maybe Haggard has the last laugh on all of us in the end.
348. “Alice’s Restaurant”– Arlo Guthrie (1967): This takes up almost the entire side of a record, but Guthrie, Woodie’s grandson, takes up the populist dissent tradition from his forebear. An essay in the craft of hippie storytelling, “Alice’s Restaurant” is a pointed satire of the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War effort, where our hero successfully evades the draft by earning a criminal record from littering.
347. “So Much in Love”– The Thymes (1963): One of my favorite doo-wop records, this was recorded when doo-wop was all but dead as top 40 material. The song is brilliant and simple in its harmonies, and I can’t help but smile at its earnest and endearing storyline about a seaside romance culminating in marriage. Boyz II Men remade the song in the 90s to great effect.
346. “Good Times, Bad Times”– Led Zeppelin (1969): If you were listening to top 40 radio, Led Zeppelin’s first album must have seemed like a bolt out of the blue. Although they borrowed liberally from obscure blues artists, this is already an amazingly tight and proficient ensemble. This raucous track, even with hints of the Yardbirds easily detected (no surprise, given Jimmy Page’s journeyman turn with the group), shows that the next generation of blues-rock has arrived.
345. “The Dawn Treader”– Joni Mitchell (1968): This track is from Mitchell’s debut album, released in 1968, just in time to make Mitchell one of the earliest female singer-songwriters to inspire dozens of careers in that vein in the 1970s like Carly Simon’s and Janis Ian’s. Mitchell’s imagery is evocative even at this early stage in her career, and I found it impressive how she molds the words into the melody. As good a lyricist as she is, the song would be just as effective in a foreign language, or in a made-up dialect like those Enya uses.
344. “Girl From the North Country”– Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash (1969): Dylan’s remake on the epochal Nashville Skyline album works with Johnny Cash and remakes this 1963 song with a greater earthiness and down-home feel than the original. Interestingly, it borrows some lyrics from “Scarborough Fair” as well.
343. “Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan”– Chicago (1969): Chicago was almost shockingly ambitious and daring in their first three albums, and couldn’t be further apart from their 80s power ballads. This suite was written by James Pankow, their trombonist who doubled as their horn arranger. Clocking in at almost fifteen minutes, it moves from the band’s conventional jazz-rock into Bach arpeggios, Renaissance aires, and Copland-like Americana. Two pieces of the suite were pared down as successful singles, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.”
342. “I Can Hear Music”– The Ronettes (1966): Listening to this track, it becomes clear why Brian Wilson idolized record producer Phil Specter. The production is lush, deliberate, and elaborate, effectively stealing the show from Ronnie and her friends.
341. “I Saw Her Again”– The Mamas and the Papas (1966): A great track that subtly hints at the inter-band love triangles that had developed by this point in time. I love the false start before the second verse. This is a fine stepping stone between Greenwich Village folk and psychedelia.