We’ve made it to the halfway point!
220. “Rescue Me”– Fontella Bass (1965): If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Aretha Franklin must have been tickled pink. The entire record sounds like it was made in a laboratory trying to emulate the “Queen of Soul”. From Bass’s gospel pedigree, to her command of the song’s call-and-response bridge, to her precociously early career, to the Stax-style production with punchy horns, it succeeds so well that the song is more memorable than much of Franklin’s own catalog. While not a perfect specimen (Aretha would have never allowed her voice to be double-tracked to the extent we hear in “Rescue Me”), it is one of the most convincing marriages of song and performer that came out of the 1960s.
219. “Walk Like A Man”– The Four Seasons (1963): My friend Scott has a segment on his blog about the “secret weapons” of various bands– members whose contributions fall under the radar but were a crucial component of success. He believes that Bob Gaudio, the band’s keyboardist and principal composer was the Four Seasons’ secret weapon, thriving in the background while Franki Valli fronted the band. I think he’s right, but a case could also be made for Nick Massi, the band’s hardscrabble bass vocalist and vocal arranger. This song showcases his talents in a big way, transforming what would otherwise be an ordinary song about a father telling his son to buck up after a breakup into one of the most memorable doo-wop songs of the early 60s. Frank Valli’s falsetto could not soar so high if it wasn’t anchored by Massi’s low notes.
218. “Ooo, Baby Baby”– Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1965): This song has been covered by many artists in the subsequent decades, but there is no denying the charm and atmosphere of the original. It’s a sweet, hopeful song about love gone wrong, and must have set the tone for many a slow dance. Smokey’s done better songs, but he was never this good at emotional communication.
217. “People Got to Be Free”– The Rascals (1968): Blue-eyed soul was a marvelous thing in the 1960s. The Rascals were master practitioners in that art, with the Righteous Brothers as their only serious challengers. What made the Rascals so great was that they never forgot who invented soul music, and they always went to great pains to make sure they shared a bill with artists of color. Their empathy toward the civil rights moment shines through in this gem, a #1 hit with biblical allusions and a theme of brotherhood that cuts against the grain of that violent year.
216. “Mississippi Goddamn”– Nina Simone (1964): Simone made a second career out of herself by issuing pointed critiques of the black condition across the country, and down South in particular. It’s very topical, and tough to duplicate. She names names and points fingers, rather than relying on generalities, even taking some shots at Lurleen Wallace, running for governor of Alabama as her husband’s surrogate. Folk songs that protest Jim Crow are a dime a dozen, but Simone’s cabaret stylings allow for layers of humor and drama and pathos to enter the song more easily. Her line “I’ve even stopped believing in prayer” is especially poignant. The song is a manifesto of the folly of “moving slow” in the civil rights movement. “You don’t have to live next to me,” she intones, “you just have to give me equality.”
215. “I Think We’re Alone Now”– Tommy James and the Shondells (1968): I bloody well love this song. To be sure, it ranks this low only because it is more of a guilty pleasure than an objective piece of greatness. But from start to finish, it’s a damn great single. The crickets chirping between the verses, the sense of urgency to make the most out of fleeting time alone. This song captures the feel, the fear, the discovery of the sexual unknown, that comes with being young better than any song from this era not by the Beach Boys.
214. “Cathy’s Clown”– The Everly Brothers (1960): Perhaps the last great song that the two brothers wrote, it is more complex and melodic than their earlier work. Essentially a polite way of acknowledge that one has become a cuckold, it has the neat trick of both Phil and Don’s lines serving as potential melodies; neither is quite dominant enough to be considered the harmony line. John and Paul would later borrow this tactic in songs like “If I Fell.”
213. “Wild Thing”– The Troggs (1965): Ruthlessly and remorselessly stupid, “Wild Thing” is the beating heart of garage-rock that thrived in the 1960s and encouraged young, resourceful, and dubiously-talented musicians to attempt bands of their own. With repetitive verses, an unforgiving guitar riff that was duplicated by hundreds of youngsters, and a bizarre flute solo in the middle of the song that presages psychedelia, the song lives in infamy. Strangely, its author, Chip Taylor, also wrote “Angel of the Morning,” a manifesto of a woman’s sexual liberation.
212. “Tuesday Afternoon”– The Moody Blues (1967): While associated with progressive rock, The Moody Blues were actually much closer to the first-generation British Invasion bands than most people remember. Part of the ambitious and orchestral Days of Future Passed project, the track is necessarily bouncier and more ponderous than its urgent and exquisite cousin, “Nights in White Satin.”
211. “Spanish Caravan”– The Doors (1968): One of the things that fascinates me is how innovative early single year of the 1960s was in retrospect. In other words, more than any decade since, a record from, say, 1966, sounds substantively different from a record in 1968. There was constantly new ground to furrow. It’s fascinating to think that by 1968 nobody had thought to do a Spanish-style song in a serious way (that is, not counting novelty numbers like “Come a Little Bit Closer.”) In fact, this song is based off of a guitar piece by turn-of-the-century Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz. In this track, The Doors put Ray Manzarek’s organ in the far background in favor of Rob Krieger’s flamenco guitar. The effect is mesmerizing and eclectic. The Doors are, in my opinion, one of the most overrated bands of the 1960s, but when they delivered, they could produce some astonishing and unexpected results.
210. “A Lover’s Concerto”– The Toys (1965): By 1965, girl groups not named The Supremes were on the way out. One of the last great efforts from this forgotten world is a one-off hit called “A Lover’s Concerto” by the Toys, a group that didn’t do much else. Like #211, it is based on some classical motifs, in this case, the minuet in G major from one of Bach’s notebooks. One critic, Dave Thompson, calls it “the apogee of the girl group sound,” and it is hard to disagree.
209. “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night”– Simon and Garfunkel (1966): Sad and poignant, Simon and Garfunkel strike on the ingenious idea to juxtapose the soft Christmas hymn with the increasingly violent and unsettling evening news.
208. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”– The Beatles (1965): This record is a historic occasion. It not only signifies John Lennon’s evolution as a more interesting songwriter willing to explore some of the dark places of the human condition. The girl in this song is the first truly unconventional and even dangerous character we meet in a Beatles song. More than that, The Beatles, for the very first time, introduce the sitar to western music. George Harrison’s songs for the next few years would explore these boundaries further, but this is the first track in rock and roll to conscientiously break down barriers between east and west.
207. “Bus Stop”– The Hollies (1966): It’s a cute little trifle of a song, a self-contained story about love blossoming unexpectedly at a bus queue.
206. “Crossroads”– Cream (1968): Since the days of Robert Johnson, the concept of the crossroads, the point of decision between right and wrong, Jesus and the devil, has been a leitmotif in the blues. Perhaps the greatest psychedelic blues outfit of them all tackles the theme their own way in this seminal track.
205. “Hush”– Deep Purple (1968): One of the first hard rock bands, Deep Purple became a sort-of gateway drug for lots of musicians and listeners. Although “Smoke on the Water” would go on to be more famous, “Hush” introduces the band’s prominent guitars with some very 60s trappings, from psychedelic organ, to British Invasion-y background vocals, and its famous melody line.
204. “Classical Gas”– Mason Williams (1968): Hmm..this is the third song with classical pretensions in this set. Strange! Williams seems like a troubadour from a bygone age- a comedian, writer, and musician as well, like one of the players we see arriving at Elsinore in Hamlet. In a similar Renaissance vein, “Classical Gas” has some captivating classical guitar and stately horns- making it a marching band staple ever since. I love that songs like this could be #1 hits in the 60s.
203. “And When I Die”– Blood, Sweat & Tears (1969): And yet a fourth song! BS&T is borrowing liberally from Aaron Copland in this cover version of a soul number originally written by Laura Nyro. An existential singer-songwriter track became, with Chicago’s James William Guercio producing,it is a piece of twee Americana with a soundscape that evokes the frontier and its live-fast-die-hard ethos. And it’s also perhaps the finest vocal performance given by David Clayton-Thomas.
202. “Soul Finger”– The Bar-Cays (1967): Riffing off of James Brown and his contemporaries, funk music was in its vibrant early stages in the mid-to-late 1960s, setting the stage for its maturation in the 1970s via groups like Parliament-Funkadelic. The Bar-Cays, ostensibly Otis Redding’s backing group, hit on a fantastic and danceable riff. The Bar-Cays might have become funk legends, but we’ll never know if they could have pulled it off. Most of them perished in the same plane crash that claimed Redding.
201. “Dear Mr. Fantasy”– Traffic (1967): Traffic was a group that could have done so much more if they had a little more time and a lot more focus. But as a near-supergroup with egos to juggle like Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, and Jim Capaldi, it is no wonder that they self-imploded. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is a great glimpse of what could have been however, and it is one of the strongest psychedelic tracks from this most psychedelic of years- transcendent and trippy.