I listened to most of the 1962 year-end list with my roommate, and after twenty or so songs he turned to me and said, and I quote, “Jesus dude, I thought ‘60s music was supposed to be good”. I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. As bad a year as 1961 was for pop, 1962 was sadly much, much worse. The good stuff was less abundant, the bad songs were more plentiful, and the year overall was an utter chore to sit through, with hardly anything redeeming it. This year was so bad that, in the process of writing these lists, I actually ended up taking a months-long break in the middle of this year’s write-ups because there was so little for me to actually look forward to writing about or listening to. Thankfully, we won’t be subjected to a chart year this dire again until the tail end of the 1980s, but before moving on to greener pastures we have to tackle the wasteland that was 1962, starting with what little quality there was to be salvaged. On with the show!
#10: King Curtis- Soul Twist
Like last year, ‘62 had its share of quality instrumental hits, and frankly there isn’t much to say about this one in specific. It’s a fun little dance jam with King Curtis’s saxophone taking front stage. The organ solo in the middle is enjoyable, the production holds up surprisingly well, and it’s easy to just switch your brain off and have a good time with it for three minutes. In any other year, I doubt this would have made it onto the list, but in 1962, “very pleasant background music” was about as good as I could expect.
#9: Burl Ives- A Little Bitty Tear
As with the last song, in a stronger year this would frankly have no business anywhere near my top ten, but in this instance, I’m glad for the chance to talk about it all the same. Burl Ives has largely been forgotten (at least by my generation) as anything other than the snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but the man left behind a massive and varied body of work spanning nearly six decades, and much of it is as agreeable and pleasant as his better-known holiday music. “A Little Bitty Tear” is an inoffensive bit of Nashville pop, but Ives is just such a likeable, charming presence as a vocalist that I can’t help but sympathize with the plight of this song’s narrator. It connects emotionally because dammit, what kind of monster could break the heart of such a sweet old man? It’s not exactly a great song, but thanks to the singular talents of the man behind the mic it resonates nonetheless.
#8: Nat King Cole- Ramblin’ Rose
Like Burl Ives, I personally know of Nat King Cole almost entirely through his holiday albums, which have been in heavy rotation every December at my parents’ house for about as long as I can remember. It took listening to a song of his that isn’t already etched permanently into my soul for me to realize what a fantastic voice the guy really has, and how effectively he manages to wield it. That effortlessly controlled vibrato, the slight rasp in his lower register, his ability to perfectly match the swing feel with a looseness that brings the song’s country-blues influences to the forefront- The man was a master of his craft, in a way few vocalists truly are anymore. Again, the actual song isn’t anything mind-blowing by itself, but Cole’s performance elevates it into a winning showcase for his inimitable voice.
#7: Sam Cooke- Having a Party
Sam Cooke’s earlier hits are all pretty damn solid, but in my opinion it wasn’t until this year that he really started to come into his own as a performer, finally finding that special something only he could bring to the pop music table. As it turns out, that thing is “being a bit of a sad-sack”. Now don’t get me wrong, this music is still far from dour or pessimistic, but listening to these songs, they really are much less upbeat and exuberant than you’d expect, even by the relatively restrained standards of the day. Here, when Cooke sings the opening lines, “We’re having a party, dancing to the music”, he’s not projecting glee or excitement so much as bemusement, perhaps even a little sheepishness. He’s having a good time, sure, but he seems at least a little self-aware about how silly the festivities he’s partaking in ultimately are, and that gives the song a unique tone that lends it a lot more staying power than your average party tune.
#6: Booker T. & the MG’s- Green Onions
Here we have another instrumental, and probably a song many would place even higher than #6. Admittedly, I’m not quite as taken by it as many other music fans seem to be, but this thing is still great, mostly because of that sweet-ass Hammond M3. Every music critic has weaknesses, certain tones or chord progressions or lyrical tropes that we’ll always be an easy lay for, regardless of how well they’re actually executed. I’ll admit it: Hammond organs just make my ears happy. Putting any Hammond (especially a B3) in just about any song will automatically score it a few extra points in my book, and placing it front and center like Booker T. Jones does here is practically a cheat code to my good graces. I do find myself a little underwhelmed by the meandering structure- you can definitely tell the majority of it was improvised on the spot- but the laid back 12-bar groove works for me all the same, and at under 3 minutes long it doesn’t overstay its welcome in the slightest. “Green Onions” is proof that if you get together a group of talented enough musicians, even a bit of off-the-cuff jamming can be a real treat.
#5: Ray Charles- You Don’t Know Me
Last year, I couldn’t help but feel like Ray Charles was coasting a bit. Both of his hits last year, while enjoyable on their own terms, felt like lesser efforts compared to the heights he reached with “Georgia on My Mind” and “What’d I Say?”. Perhaps Charles himself agreed that he had been resting on his laurels, because 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music saw him boldly exploring country classics in an orchestral soul style, an unprecedented experiment that challenged racial boundaries in both genres. These days, the consensus seems to be that most of Modern Sounds… suffers from schmaltzy, overdone arrangements to one degree or another, but the best of the bunch succeed nonetheless, and “You Don’t Know Me” is definitely an example of this. Despite a backing chorus that feels a little dusty and anodyne, Charles’ vocal performance brings the same warmth and emotional depth that made “Georgia On My Mind” soar, and the lyrics paint in broad enough strokes to downplay the bits of “nice guys finish last” subtext bubbling underneath, diverting focus more towards the emotional distance that the narrator found himself unable to bridge, and framing his lost chance at romance as a direct result of his failure to communicate. It may be just a shade shy of his all-time greatest, but “You Don’t Know Me” still reaffirms Ray Charles as the head honcho of proto-soul.
#4: Ray Charles- I Can’t Stop Loving You
Acclaimed author and country songwriter Alice Randall describes country music as being defined by “three chords and four very particular truths”, listing the fourth (and perhaps most important) truth as “the past is better than the present”. Most would probably point to the genre’s fixation on a rural America of decades past, viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of white privilege, as the prime example of this. Indeed, doing so wouldn’t be entirely unfair, but I think its presence in country love songs in particular often goes wrongly unnoticed. Love songs in country music are, for better and for worse, hopelessly entangled in memory, in bygone days of carefree romance, and often the difference between a good country love song and a great country love song is the degree to which the songwriter understands that those days can never truly be returned to. “You Don’t Know Me”, originally written and performed by Don Gibson in 1957, centers entirely around that understanding- The lines “They say that time/Heals a broken heart/But time has stood still/Since we’ve been apart” make crystal-clear that the true tragedy of the song is not the end of a romance, but the narrator’s inability to extract himself from the memories of that romance. He’ll live the rest of his life in “dreams of yesterday”, and there’s something both extremely relatable and kind of pathetic about that. It’s a messy, human song about messy, human faults, and it speaks to the quality of Charles’s rendition that that complexity still shows through despite the stoic surety of his vocal delivery.
#3: Jimmy Smith- Walk on the Wild Side
I like “Green Onions”, but at the end of the day, it feels like a lark. It’s a lot of fun, but not exactly the most substantial piece out there. “Walk on the Wild Side”, by contrast, feels like a journey. Smith and arranger Oliver Nelson clearly wanted this piece to have a proper build, to feel like every solo and section served the overall piece, and I have to say they fully succeeded. The way the upright bass trickles in over the sleigh bells at the beginning, those triumphant horns ebbing and flowing in intensity throughout the track and really kicking into full gear in the last minute of the song all contribute to a completely kickass finale. Oh, and of course that damn Hammond solo. Booker T. Jones definitely didn’t skimp out on the dulcet organ tones, but here Jimmy Smith treats us to nearly two and a half full, glorious minutes of unabashed B-3 worship, and doesn’t waste a second of it. “Green Onions” may be the critical darling, but for my money It’s Jimmy Smith’s “Walk On The Wild Side” that really set the standard for jazzy, soulful instrumental tracks this year.
#2: Elvis Presley- Can’t Help Falling in Love
You got me, Elvis. I was the last holdout, but you finally got me. All hail the King. Every one of Presley’s previous hits left me cold, and frankly it was only his undeniably appealing voice that elevated him above the teen-idol rat race that’s helped make this era of pop such a slog. But the stars finally aligned, and he released a song so gorgeous, so immaculately constructed, that no amount of anti-Elvis bias could have prevented it from winding up on this list. I don’t really want to waste much time on Presley himself, who handles the tune with aplomb; I’m convinced this song’s greatness would shine through no matter who was singing it. The gentle lilt of the lead melody and the subdued, tasteful instrumentation (again, give some love to Floyd Cramer on piano!) are in my opinion the song’s biggest strengths. And the lyrics, plain-spoken as they are, capture something genuine and timeless about the nature of love, something few love songs manage to adequately express: Sometimes, it’s just inevitable. He can’t help it. And I can’t help loving this song.
#1: Sam Cooke- Twistin’ the Night Away
My very favorite of Sam Cooke’s hit singles is in a fairly similar vein to its sibling single on this list, and in my opinion it proves itself to be an improvement on “Having a Party” across the board, both a more poignant lyrical statement and a more exciting pop song. Musically, it fits much more with the sound of early-60s dance-floor R&B, but Sam Cooke still brings that same element of bemused melancholy, albeit in a more subtle way. His vocal delivery is much more engaged, but when you listen to the lyrics, they’re all about other people. “They’re” twisting the night away, not us and certainly not Sam Cooke. Here, Cooke himself is at most a wallflower watching everyone else having a great time. It’s possible he isn’t even at this party, just elsewhere, fantasizing about how much fun his peers are probably having. Personally, I lean more towards the wallflower interpretation, simply because I think it fits the tone much better. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I’ve found myself at parties before where I just had too much on my mind and couldn’t let go and dance my cares away, contenting myself with watching my fellow partygoers enjoying themselves. Whenever I hear this song, it’s those nights that I’m reminded of, the nights where you’re more at ease people-watching from the sidelines than participating in the festivities yourself, and Cooke really captures both the fun of seeing colorful characters mixing and mingling and the slightly bittersweet feeling of seeing it all play out from the outside. It’s one of the rare party songs that attempts to explore the grey area between “simple happy fun and good times” and “desperate attempt to stave off existential despair with hedonism”, and for that alone it would have my respect, but the fact that it’s executed this well makes it my favorite hit of 1962.