I said in the intro to my best list that 1959-63 wasn’t a great time for pop music, and while 1959 certainly had its highlights, the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff was indeed pretty damn rancid, and it’s only grown moldier and more rotten in the intervening decades. From teen idols somehow even more insipid and trite than their modern-day counterparts to headache-inducing novelty records, there were plenty of songs from this year that I thank my lucky stars have been forgotten by the public at large. Here’s the ten worst, assembled and presented here for your scorn and derision. On with the show!
#10: The Chipmunks- Alvin’s Harmonica
I know it’s not exactly a piping hot take, but nothing Alvin and the Chipmunks-related has ever been remotely good. Altering your voice to be high-pitched and squeaky is barely enough of a gimmick to sustain a single bad novelty song, let alone a multimedia franchise now spanning eight decades. The whole wretched enterprise was only a year old at this point, and already it’s obvious that Dave Seville’s limited compositional ability isn’t nearly enough to offset the shrill, piercing whine of the Chipmunks’ pitch-shifted singing. The main problem, though, is that it just. Is. Not. Funny. Like, at all. Alvin just wants to play his harmonica. That’s hardly even the setup to a joke, let alone an actual joke. The only moment that could conceivably be considered humorous is when Alvin rhymes “popcorn” with “harmonicorn”, which… sheesh, does that even register on the joke seismograph? Hacks like Seville spent years using “it’s a joke” as an excuse for writing crappy songs with bizarre, gimmicky premises, and the reputation of musical comedy is still in the toilet to this day. Thanks, Dave.
[ADDENDUM 11/02/20: upon remembering Brian Borcherdt’s 2012 side project Sludgefest under the Chipmunkson16speed moniker, I retract my assertion that nothing Alvin and the Chipmunks-related has ever been good. That is the one good piece of Chipmunks-adjacent media, and you should go listen to it.]
#9: Carl Dobkins Jr.- My Heart is an Open Book
Middling-to-poor vocals delivered by a clean-cut little boy scout? Check. Totally rote, uninspired instrumentation with absolutely no energy or depth? Check. Lyrics straight from How to Write A Basic-Bitch Love Song in Ten Minutes? Check. And most importantly, an overall tone of paste-bland, gee-golly-shucks wholesomeness that feels both terribly disingenuous and smugly self-satisfied? Big, fat check. “My Heart is an Open Book” so exemplifies the kind of vacuous slop that made the late 50s and early 60s one of the darkest times in pop history that for a while I considered simply referring to all artists of this stripe as “the dobkinses”, despite the fact that Carl himself never really troubled the charts again after this year. Just a complete flavorless pile of mush in audio form, only saved from any greater excoriation by being nearly indistinguishable from the dozens of other flavorless mush-piles this year spat out.
#8: Paul Evans- Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat
The whole thing back in the ’50s and ’60s where male singers (and sometimes even female singers) referred to women as “little girls” is a lyrical trope that has aged so, so poorly. Yes, I know it was (more) culturally acceptable at the time, and I’m sure that only some of these artists harbored any truly pedophilic tendencies, but it’s still a weird, bad thing that is weird and bad and it grosses me out a little every time it happens.Of course, it also doesn’t help that most of the songs afflicted with this problem are also complete garbage. Case in point: Paul Evans’ “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat”, a humorless little ditty about a guy driving around someone named Fred and what seems to be his… harem? There are seven girls, and they’re all macking on Fred, but no one seems bothered by this, least of all the girls, and whenever the narrator says anything to his passengers they sing-songily chide him for not focusing on the road. Cue laugh track as my ears begin bleeding. If the goal is to make the listener feel the frustration of driving around town while some rando has an 8-way in their backseat, then this song is a resounding success. Otherwise, it’s a total wreck.
#7: Jan and Dean- Baby Talk
Despite what the title suggests,“Baby Talk” is not one of the many, many songs from this era wherein an adult man sexualizes a young woman via infantilizing descriptors. It is, in fact, a love song sung from the perspective of a five-year-old boy to his beloved, who is, naturally, a three-year-old infant girl. So his “baby” is actually a literal baby. That’s actually a funnier premise than most of the novelty tunes it shared the airwaves with, but the only thing Jan and Dean can think to do with that premise is to make the chorus a bunch of gibbering nonsense. Because you see, babies cannot talk, and so when this girl attempts to express her love for her, erm, boyfriend? that is all that comes out. The wordless nonsense chorus seems at first blush like a decent enough hook, but whew boy does it wear out its welcome by the end, and the excessive reverb effect slathered over the entire track makes it sound like the chorus is just rattling around inside your skull, crowding out your brain with endless, echoing babble. It’s a pretty grating listen, but the wasted potential only makes it all the worse.
#6: Tommy Dee & Carol Kay- Three Stars
Ooof, this isn’t gonna be an easy one to talk about. See, “Three Stars” isn’t just another brainless pop song, but a sincere tribute to the victims of an undeniable tragedy that shook the music industry. The titular ‘three stars’ are Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, all of whom had lost their lives at a far-too-young age in a plane crash earlier in the year. The song is pretty tough to object to as far as the message goes, and I feel like a real ass being so harsh to something with such good intentions, but this earnest, well-meaning tribute song sucks, dangit! The main problem here is Dee’s delivery of the verses- he doesn’t sing them, he speaks them, and it completely exposes the lyric for the terrible juvenile poetry it is and makes the whole thing feel overwhelmingly condescending and maudlin, addressing this terrible cultural loss by treating it like some kind of Precious Moments statuette. I’m also frankly pretty uncomfortable with the repeated implications that it was somehow God’s plan to send these three talented young men to a fiery, premature death. I understand a lot of people turn to religion in times of grief, and back before the pop world was taken over by filthy godless hippies it was a much more universally shared sentiment, but the whole “God’s plan” excuse always just pisses me off, and regardless of their intentions it feels like it cheapens the tragedy out of a fear of actually confronting the messy, heartbreaking reality of the situation. If you prefer your sad songs not stuffed to the gills with shallow platitudes, this is one you’ll definitely want to skip.
#5: The Chipmunks- Christmas Don’t Be Late
Ah, that’s better, another awful Chipmunks song for me to uncontroversially tee off on. How weird is it that of all the songs on this list, this is the only one that’s really stuck around? Partially because it just has the feel of a pop culture oddity lost to time, and partially because it’s total garbage. It’s not even a joke song! To be clear here, I’m not saying it isn’t funny (though it isn’t), I’m saying it is literally just a bad, boring christmas song with the Chipmunk voice lazily slapped over it. There’s nary a passing attempt at comedy, just a single, typically annoying Chipmunks verse and a spectacularly uneventful instrumental section before it winds down and devolves into squeaky chattering. The melody is a bit stronger than the one on “Alvin’s Harmonica”, but the overall lack of effort on display here is enough to make “Christmas Don’t Be Late” The Chipmunks’ worst song this year by a comfortable margin.
#4: Frankie Avalon- Venus
In my journey through the hits of 1959, one thing became very clear: Frankie Avalon SUCKS. He is crap crap crappity-crap, completely unburdened by singing ability, charisma or any distinct personality, yet still he found obscene amounts of success, seemingly only through moderate good looks and a willingness to shamelessly pander to whatever teen girls were undiscerning and boy-crazy enough to fall for his limp, hollow schtick. The degree to which he managed to outstrip scores of fellow unworthy teen idols in terms of sheer vapidity would be impressive if it wasn’t so noxious. “Venus” wasn’t the worst Avalon did this year (we’ll get to that soon), but it’s still bland enough to set my teeth on edge. While it’s not quite fair to ding the lyrics for misogyny, since there’s nothing specifically sexist here, the whole “please send a little girl for me” thing still strikes an awkward, mildly creepy note for me. It feels like the 50s version of praying to God for a big tiddy goth GF or something. Then again, perhaps I’m picking it over for flaws too zealously since the actual sound of the song bugs me so much. Either way, I think we can all agree that naming a song this suffocatingly sterile and sexless after the goddess of lust and passion is absolutely inexcusable.
#3: Wink Martindale- The Deck of Cards
Just to make this clear at the outset, I’m not opposed to religious pop music as a rule or anything. While I myself am not religious, I still think there are plenty of ways to make a song about faith engaging, thought-provoking, or otherwise somehow enjoyable. But here’s the thing, you have to do something with it. “The Deck of Cards” is the absolute worst kind of Christian music, where the takeaway is just “boy howdy Christianity sure is great”. The song, about a young soldier getting caught playing cards in church, exists not to provoke any deeper thought about one’s beliefs or even to explore the tenets of Christianity in an interesting way. No, it just exists so all the bible-thumpers listening at home can pat themselves on the back for believing the Right Thing. Musically speaking it’s a total wash too. Like with “Three Stars”, the song is spoken rather than sung over the plodding backing tracks, giving it a head-smackingly self-serious tone. Unlike “Three Stars”, though, it doesn’t have the small redemption of a sung refrain to break up the trudging tedium of Martindale’s droning piety, nor the good intentions to make me feel the least bit guilty for rolling my eyes through the whole thing. It’s not even accurate, either! He says there are 365 spots throughout the deck, but that would mean each suit has 91.25 spots! But hey, all things possible through God, right buddy?
#2: Frankie Avalon- Bobby Sox to Stockings
Frankie Avalon, much as I don’t like him, is guilty more than anything of simply being dull and uninteresting, and even when he’s bland to the point of active irritation, that’s not really something I can object to on a moral level or anything. “Dull and uninteresting”, however, is a level of quality that “Bobby Sox to Stockings” could only ever dream of achieving. Musically, it’s the same sickly-sweet empty calories as everything else Avalon touches, but the lyrics are where this song really goes off the rails- painfully basic in construction and utterly appalling in content. In a pre-sexual revolution era it’s of course not very overt about it, but essentially the message of the song boils down to “if she’s old enough to bleed, she’s old enough to breed”, and honestly the fact that I just had to type that phrase just now is by itself enough to land this song very high on this list. That sort of drooling-over-barely-legal-chicks vibe would be creepy in any context, but coming from an artist whose fanbase (as I understand it) comprised largely of young women, it’s wildly inappropriate at best and bordering on predatory at worst, and the simpering, schmaltzy tone just makes the whole thing skin-crawlingly unpleasant. Say what you want about One Direction or Justin Bieber or any other teen idol of the last 20 years, at least they’ve had the sense to sing about girls in a more general way, and not outright say that it’s okay to get with a girl as soon as she leaves the baby toys behind. Eugh.
#1: Edd Byrnes & Connie Stevens- Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb
Like with my top 2 best-list picks this year, I went back and forth a bit on whether this or “Bobby Sox” was the absolute worst the year had to offer. As impressively vacant as this song is, I wasn’t sure if it really bothered me enough to outweigh Frankie Avalon’s slimy, lecherous ode to newly-pubescent women. I realized something, though. I’ve come back to “Bobby Sox to Stockings”, several times in fact. Its awfulness, to some extent, genuinely engages me. In a sense, I suppose I sort of enjoy hating it. But this? I’ve avoided this damned song like the plague since the moment I heard it. I never want to hear that stupid, dinky beat again. I never want to hear that horn line that sounds like on-hold music turned up too loud again. And I never, ever want to hear Connie Stevens and Edd Byrnes doing what I can only assume is a particularly mean-spirited impression of a vapid high-school couple babbling back and forth about nothing at all ever, EVER again. “Kookie, Kookie” is the absolute nadir of musical comedy. The feeble attempts at humor are brain-dead and insufferable, and the actual music is nigh-on unlistenable. Thank christ even the goons running Dr. Demento didn’t want to salvage this dreck.