Alright, now we’re cooking with fire! If 1963 was the pop world finally realizing it needed to kick itself into gear, 1964 finds it at the end of its sport-movie training montage: limbered up, reinvigorated and raring to go. We haven’t quite arrived at the doors of pop’s true golden era, but by the final days of ‘64 all the pieces were in place and the stage had been set. The British invasion was giving birth to rock as we know it, soul and R&B were thriving, and we even saw some less mainstream genres like bossa nova, folk and blues creeping in here and there. The really great stuff is close enough to taste, but in the meantime we’ve got an endlessly interesting transition year to cover, starting with the cream of the crop. On with the show!
#10: Manfred Mann- Do Wah Diddy Diddy
Much the same way The Beach Boys have become largely synonymous with 60s surf rock, The Beatles have become largely synonymous with The British Invasion that quickly replaced it. However, unlike surf rock, which was largely populated by B-list hangers-on like Jan and Dean or the Surfaris, some of the less-beloved beat groups of the mid-60s were, if not quite as brilliant as the ever-present Fab Four, still more than deserving of their slice of the metaphorical pie. That’s not to say that Manfred Mann has been lost to time, though: In fact, their biggest hit has arguably eclipsed the band itself in the cultural memory, and it’s not hard to see why. “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” wields two totally brilliant hooks: the titular nonsense refrain, and that call-and-response at the end of each verse. The song feels like it was sketched entirely around those two musical ideas, and while the middle 8 isn’t especially impressive, it acts as a nice little breather so the boisterous hooks don’t get grating. The whole thing is actually pretty damn brash and in-your-face for the time, and I think that unfettered enthusiasm is what’s helped the song stay so fresh throughout the years.
#9: The Beach Boys- I Get Around
Of the singles from the Beach Boys’ glory years, “I Get Around” certainly ranks among their most acclaimed. While I personally might not be quite as hot on it as some others (For my money, Brian Wilson wouldn’t really hit his stride until ‘65), I certainly get why it enamors so many. First and foremost, that chorus is an absolute beast, with Wilson’s crystalline falsetto soaring ever-higher over the layered, chanting backing harmonies. It falters just a bit in the verses- the little instrumental measure bisecting each verse feels like it kills some of the momentum built by the handclaps at the end of every other line (those handclaps, by the by, being another inspired songwriting choice). Still, the whole thing is carried through by the same sunny, carefree youthfulness that powered “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, and the lyrics focus more generally on the excitement of cruising around town and having fun with your friends, so even people without a surfboard (read: me) can relate to it.
#8: The Beatles- She Loves You
There’s no other way to put it: The Beatles tower over the entire ‘60s. Hell, they tower over the entire last 50 years of popular music. They’re just a fact of life at this point; there’s nothing you or I or anybody else can say or do to so much as make a dent in the enormous legacy of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and (to a lesser extent) Ringo Starr. So I’ll just make clear right now that when I praise this band, I do so with full awareness that hundreds before me have done likewise, that saying that I like this band a lot is perhaps the coldest take a music writer can possibly deliver. Yes, you heard it here, folks: in my opinion, the most enduring and influential pop act of all time is really quite good. And make no mistake, for all their innovations and artistry, the Beatles were always a pop act. Especially in their early days, they were just unbelievably great at writing sturdy, well-constructed songs bursting at the seams with creatively earwormy hooks. Case in point: “She Loves You”. You only need to hear that “yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain once to remember it forever, and the finale (“you know you sho-o-ould…be GLAAAAAAAAAAD!!!”) is a charge through the gates of rock Valhalla; if they had never had another hit after this year, that moment alone would have earned them a little spot in the history books. It’s perhaps just a hair shy of belonging in the upper echelon of their pre-Rubber Soul work, but “She Loves You” is still one of many tracks that serve as a reminder of The Beatles’ immense talent.
#7: The Impressions- Keep on Pushing
Curtis Mayfield tried his damnedest in 1964 to keep up his momentum from the last year, and while I don’t think “Keep on Pushing” is quite as great as “It’s All Right”, it still succeeds, largely for the same reasons its predecessor did. Although the smooth, feel-good group vocals and languid, horn-driven arrangement are all quite lovely in their own right, the message suits the sound slightly less seamlessly. It’s a more strident song, centering around the need to “keep on pushing” through the obstacles that stand in the way of your dreams. The lyrics and music still serve each other well, the lyric gaining a fair bit of inspirational heft from the surging, 3/4 feel and Mayfield’s slightly-strained-yet-still-capable falsetto, it’s just not quite the match made in heaven that “It’s All Right” was. It’s an excellent song, and its frequent use by the burgeoning civil rights movement was richly deserved, but the fact that its older sibling casts such a long shadow definitely hurts it a bit in my eyes.
#6: The Dave Clark Five- Glad All Over
Much like “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”, “Glad All Over” gets by largely on enthusiasm and sheer catchiness. I could see an argument for placing this below that one (after all, there’s nothing here as instantly earwormy as “Do Wah…”) but this one gets the edge because it feels a lot more well-rounded. I can also see why this was the first band to join the Beatles as trans-Atlantic superstars. This sounds a lot like an early Beatles tune, to the point where a less attentive listener might even mistake them for the same band. But hey, if you’re going to sound like anyone, the Beatles are far from your worst option, and if the Fab Four had been the ones to record “Glad All Over”, I’m not sure there’s too much they could have improved. The relentless, four-to-the-floor beat gives it more than enough momentum to carry it through its 2:43 runtime, and the addition of a saxophone really helps the mix feel as lively and full as possible. I’m not exactly surprised that The Dave Clark Five didn’t stick around the way the Beatles did- they ultimately weren’t especially ambitious or interesting- but they definitely earned the bragging rights for being the first group to unseat the Beatles from the top of the chart. Take that, Mick Jagger!
#5: Joe Hinton- Funny How Time Slips Away
Joe Hinton’s rendition of the Willie Nelson standard “Funny How Time Slips Away” is possibly one of the most unjustly-forgotten soul singles of this time period. Nelson’s lyrics bring a feeling of wistful bittersweetness cut with dry humour, and by swapping out Billy Walker’s country twang for Hinton’s velvet-voiced croon, the compositional complexity that’s always been Nelson’s calling card really shines through, aided further by a smoky, jazz-inflected arrangement. Hinton himself turns in what by all measures should have been a star-making performance, balancing a full-bodied tenor midrange with a judiciously deployed, buttery-smooth falsetto. Just listen to those last few, glass-shattering high notes he hits- Take notes, Lou Christie. That’s falsetto done right. Unfortunately, Hinton never got another hit this big. His only single after this failed to cross over from the R&B charts, and he succumbed to skin cancer at the too-young age of 38 a few short years later. If this song is any indication, Joe Hinton had the potential to become one of the great 60s soul singers, and even if that potential went tragically unrealized, his most enduring record is still well worth revisiting.
#4: The Beatles- A Hard Day’s Night
The interesting thing about “A Hard Day’s Night”, and in fact a lot of early Beatles songs, is how little there is to them structurally. “A Hard Day’s Night” basically doesn’t have a chorus, just verses with a bridge and a solo thrown in for good measure. And yet, despite this, every part of the song feels like a hook. The indelible three syllables of “HAARD DAAY’S NIIIIGHT”, the half-step walk-downs in the third line of each verse, Paul wailing out “feelin’ you holding me TIIIIIGHT, TIIIIGHT, YEAH” on the bridge, George’s jangling runs on the twelve-string solo- it’s all immediately memorable, and it all builds so naturally into itself that it was only in writing this list that I realized how much it does with so little. I’d also like to point out what a solid lyric “Why on earth should I moan/’cause when I get you alone/You know I feel alright” is. It’s such a clever, charming way to sum up the message of the song (My job beats the hell out of me, but it’s worth it because you’re so great), and it gels flawlessly with the super-satisfying vocal cadence. Just another drop in the bucket for the perfect storm of talent that was this band.
#3: Getz/Gilberto- The Girl From Ipanema
Musician and educator Adam Neely recently put out a fantastic video analyzing the history and theory behind “The Girl From Ipanema”, which I wholeheartedly agree with and recommend you watch if you want a deep dive into why this song is so fascinating from a compositional standpoint. One thing I really want to highlight here, which Neely’s analysis (understandably) left out, was how striking the production of the Getz/Gilberto rendition in particular really is. Producer Creed Taylor deserves a standing ovation here: this is probably the first song to appear on a year-end list that I can say without reservation has phenomenal production. Right from the opening seconds, that acoustic plucking combined with João Gilberto’s soft, almost muttered ad-lib vocal conjures a whole auditory world- It doesn’t just sound like a song, it sounds like a place. This was 1964! Only the rarefied likes of Phil Spector had even begun to explore the possibilities of recording as an art form in and of itself, and even Spector was always too enamored with his maximalist sonic onslaughts to ever create something this restrained and dynamic. Here, the sheer attention to detail, the mixing and mastering, all has a level of subtlety and refinement to it that makes the suave, sultry bossa nova instrumentation all the more ear-grabbing. And speaking of sultry, guest vocalist Astrud Gilberto also deserves a mention for her effortlessly sensual singing, which perfectly embodies the mysterious, distant allure of the titular girl the lyrics describe. Chart pop this sonically beautiful is far too rare a delight to neglect praising when it crops up.
#2: The Beatles- Can’t Buy Me Love
The Beatles had a ton of hits this year- if I wanted to, I could give all but one spot on this list to a Beatles song- but “Can’t Buy Me Love” is far and away their best song to this point. If I limited myself to only their really big hits, this might even crack my all-time top 5. One of the few times Paul McCartney put his mind to a straightforward twelve-bar blues, “Can’t Buy Me Love” also displays McCartney’s gift for lyrical economy. I mean really: as far as lines to woo a lady with, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love” is just killer. That’s it right there, no need to write any more love songs that poo-poo materialism, because it doesn’t get more succinct and direct than that. The vocal delivery is superb as well, pure infectious vigor from beginning to end. That scream leading into the guitar solo still sounds shockingly wild and unhinged to this day; I can scarcely imagine how it must have sounded 56 years ago. Oh, and George’s double-tracked solo is a slam-dunk too. It’s a boatload of fun and the message is a timeless one.
#1: The Animals- The House of the Rising Sun
Not content to simply turn in a straightforward cover of a classic tune, British rockers The Animals brought plenty of their own flavors to the table for their now-definitive rendition of the Appalachian folk standard “The House of the Rising Sun”. They take the grimy, dark core of the lyrics and, starting with Hilton Valentine’s foreboding, minor-key guitar arpeggios, build it into a smoldering, seething electric-blues nightmare fueled by Alan Price’s frenzied organ work. The titular New Orleans brothel becomes a looming monument of moral corruption; it feels as though it exerts a magnetic pull on our narrator that, no matter how desperately he tries, he can never hope to escape. Crucially, frontman Eric Burdon turns in an utterly pummeling vocal performance, howling like he fears for his very soul. I defy any listener to not feel goosebumps when he belts out those last few verses at the top of his lungs. I’ve listened to dozens of versions of this song: the folk renditions that preceded this lack the same grandiosity and sense of scope, and subsequent versions never quite capture the wild-eyed terror that Burdon and co. imbue this version with. When I say that this is not only the single best hit song of 1964, but the all-time best version of “House of the Rising Sun”, I do not say it lightly.