The start of the 1960s was a pretty far cry from what our collective memory of what the capital-S Sixties were. Pop music took its sweet time dragging itself groggily out of bed to face the dawn of the new decade, and in the meantime the listening public had to subsist on the dregs of the already-stale cultural ‘50s. With all that said, I found that 1960 overall fared pretty well compared to 1959 (and especially well compared to the next few years). While there weren’t as many tracks that really stood out and made a lasting positive impression, the bad stuff wasn’t quite as bad as ‘59, and the year just felt a bit more well-rounded overall. Actually, while I initially felt much cooler on this year’s best list then I did on last year’s, many of these songs have since grown on me a lot, and as of right now I’d maybe even put this list a hair above ‘59’s in terms of overall quality. Eh, either way, these songs are all great, the 10 tunes I’d deem most deserving of ushering in the proverbial Best Decade in Pop. On with the show!
#10: Chubby Checker- The Twist
What boogieing was to the late ‘70s, twisting was to the early ‘60. Actually, that’s a bit of an oversimplification: There were a ton of dance crazes around this time, but the twist still has a pretty good claim as the biggest of them all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was largely due to the song most often associated with it being a damn sight better than the lion’s share of its peers. It’s just a fun, upbeat little rock ‘n’ roll tune that you can totally imagine people back in the day dancing to, and Checker’s weird, nasally vocals give it that extra bit of distinction and personality to help set it apart from the herd.
#9: Sam Cooke- Wonderful World
Sam Cooke is one of those classic soul singers whose influence and impact on the landscape of modern music is nearly impossible to overstate. The guy was clearly incredibly talented, and historically speaking he’s pretty much a god, but if I’m being brutally honest, a lot of his songs don’t do all that much for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still like basically everything I’ve heard from the guy, but most of the time his songs don’t quite have that X factor that really pulls me across the line between “appreciating the artistry and songcraft” and “actually connecting to the material on a human level”. “Wonderful World” is one of the exceptions to that. It’s a very simple love song, and that simplicity gives Cooke a chance to show his total mastery of songwriting fundamentals. It’s an incredibly well-built melody and arrangement, and the lyrics are similarly stripped-down and unfussy. I’m all for ornate, poetic statements of romance, but there’s something to be said for a love song written in plain English that doesn’t beat around the bush. Cooke’s vocals fit this simplicity as well- the humble, unassuming quality that can make some of his songs feel just a bit inert makes him seem that much more relatable and likable here.
#8: Conway Twitty- Lonely Blue Boy
I’ve recently started developing more of an appreciation for a lot of country music, and thank goodness I’ve acquired that taste, because there were some great country songs this year that really helped break up the monotony of weightless pap fluff. Conway Twitty had one of the best with “Lonely Blue Boy”, which… let’s be honest, it’s pretty much an emo song dressed in denim and plaid. The lyrics are a bit of a self-pitying bummer, but Twitty just sells it with everything he’s got and it totally works. The arrangement is nice enough, and I particularly like those backing vocals, but the way he scrapes the bottom of his range on the “boy” in “lonely blue boy” and those scratchy reaches into his higher tenor register are what gives it the rockabilly flair needed to really bring it all together. If ‘60s Nashville had made famous more guys who sang like this and fewer lightweight, crooning balladeers, who knows where country music would be today.
#7: Bobby Darin- Beyond the Sea
I already sang Bobby Darin’s praises plenty when he topped my 1959 list with “Mack the Knife”, and maybe it’s a little unfair to give “Beyond the Sea” the short shrift in comparison, especially since it’s stuck around in the cultural consciousness a lot more than “Mack the Knife” has. Eh, it’s just a shade too low-key to really get me excited over it, and never quite explodes the way “Mack” does at the end. But hey, Darin still has style and pipes to spare, and the Sinatra-esque vocal jazz style he’s working has yet to wear out its welcome. Darin stuck around for a little while after this, notching a couple other hits before quietly receding from the mainstream in the latter half of the ‘60s due to a combination of poor health and increasingly uncommercial ambitions, but in my opinion this was the last time he was really firing on all cylinders. Even if it’s not my personal pick for his best work, it’s a great song that’s more than earned its place as an early-60s touchstone.
#6: Marty Robbins- El Paso
This one is a pretty easy pick, especially given my newfound appreciation for country music. I mean seriously, how many songs manage to cram the entire plot of a spaghetti western into a four-minute song? It’s a damn fine plot, too: unrequited love, murder, daring escapes, and a climactic horse chase that ends with the narrator bleeding to death in the dirt. It’s no slouch when it comes to the music either, between the classically-influenced acoustic guitar picking and Robbins’ excellent voice, which makes up for a lack of any real grit with silky, suave precision. “El Paso” is one of those songs that just screams “classic” from beginning to end. A quintessential piece of true Americana.
#5: Fats Domino- Walkin’ to New Orleans
In case you didn’t know, in 1960 Fats Domino was doing extremely well for himself. He had been a pop star for half a decade at this point; in an interview several years earlier, he confessed to owning 100 pairs of shoes and 50 different suits. Point is, he was probably not walking anywhere when “Walkin’ to New Orleans” came out. But you would never guess that by listening to the song. As a full-time pedestrian, I think I’m qualified to say that this song perfectly captures the feeling of a long, arduous walk home, that feeling when your legs ache and you’re starting to get a little winded, but it’s a beautiful summer evening and the sun is just starting to set and, despite your exhaustion, all seems right in the world for a brief moment. The swelling strings give the breezy instrumental just the barest hint of melancholy, and Domino’s vocals are soulful and down-to-earth. It’s a great song to throw on when you’re a little beat down but still feeling alright.
#4: Dinah Washington & Brook Benton- A Rockin’ Good Way
Brook Benton and Dinah Washington both scored some quality hits last year (Washington’s “What A Difference A Day Makes” got cut from the best list proper, but is nonetheless worth a listen), but this year they teamed up for a collaborative album, and while I often find myself underwhelmed by pop duets like this, boy if it didn’t bring out the best in both Benton and Washington here! The song itself is actually a bit on the dippy side, but the arrangement is bouncy enough to justify it, and more importantly the two singers have so much natural chemistry together that it’s more than enough just to hear them bounce off each other for a few minutes.
#3: Brenda Lee- That’s All You Gotta Do
If any song on this list could fairly be considered an analogue to Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” from last year, this is it. Not because of any similarity in composition or themes necessarily, but because both songs are just so damn fun. “That’s All You Gotta Do” is pure bouncy exuberance, all “bap-baaaa” backing vocals and peppy saxophones, and while it’s easy to see how Lee’s occasionally bleating voice could be a turn-off for some, for me it just gives the song personality and charm it wouldn’t otherwise have. I also really dig the way the lyrics place a lot of emphasis on Lee’s emotional availability, asking the man she’s singing to to let her know if he’s ever having trouble so she can be there for him, with the framing suggesting she’s actually being quite respectful of his boundaries as well. A lot of songs from this era find themselves neutered by their old-timey, white-bread wholesomeness, but lyrics about wanting a healthy, supportive relationship turn out to be a perfect fit for this squeaky-clean, upbeat pop tune.
#2: Dinah Washington & Brook Benton- Baby (You Got What It Takes)
“A Rockin’ Good Way” is a good song, but if I’m brutally honest, whenever I try to remember how it goes without actually listening to it, I just hear this song in my head. Basically everything I said about that song is also true here, except this song (the actual song, like the composition and stuff) is actually really good instead of just kind of okay. It’s got a boatload of swingin’, bluesy energy, the lyrics are still juuuust a bit corny but nonetheless enjoyable, and yet again the whole thing is put over the top by a fantastic pair of performances from Benton and Washington. This song has so many great little moments- Benton’s understated vocal runs are a joy each and every time, and the ad-libbing at the end of the track is the best 30 seconds in music this year.
#1: Ray Charles- Georgia On My Mind
If “What’d I Say” was the pop world’s official introduction to Ray Charles, “Georgia on My Mind” was his assertion of total dominance, his definitive proof that he was at the top of the pop food chain and didn’t get there by accident. “Georgia on My Mind”, from Charles’s seminal album The Genius Hits the Road, is quite simply one of the best love songs of its time, perhaps of any time. Hoagy Carmichael may have originated the tune 30 years prior, but sometimes a cover is great enough to once and for all transfer ownership of, for lack of a better word, the song’s soul, and this is one of those covers. “Georgia on My Mind” is Ray’s song now, just like “All Along the Watchtower” is Hendrix’s and “Respect” is Aretha’s. Charles was barely 30 years old at the time this was released, but on this record he sings like a man with decades of love and loss under his belt. The way his voice strains and breaks conveys so many complex emotions- yearning, regret, weariness, even desperation- but above all else it’s such a passionate, pure declaration of love and devotion that I can’t imagine anybody not being moved by it. It is, without question, my favorite hit song of 1960.