Oh man. Oh man. At long last, we’ve finally gotten to the years where I really have to work to contain my excitement. 1965 is the start of an extended golden age for the Billboard charts- The popular wisdom is that it lasted until around 1970 or so, but I would actually argue that every year-end hot 100 list from now until the mid-80s has, with only a few exceptions, enough great music to make whittling down my favorites to a top 10 a very challenging task. I do see why the latter half of the 60s stands out as being particularly amazing to so many, though. This may seem unbelievable to us today, when the charts are more often than not full of trend-chasers and pale imitators, but back in the 60s, when new sounds and genres were birthed, pop radio was the doctor who delivered them. The best pop music of this era still sounds remarkably cutting-edge, even after all these years. Starting in ‘65, pop stars weren’t just hitmakers- they were innovators, explorers, sometimes even social critics. The top 10 list this year is full to the brim with beloved, classic pop tunes, so I won’t waste any more time re-introducing them to you all. On with the show!
#10: James Brown- Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
With all due respect to the man’s impact and artistry, James Brown was never an artist with much range. He was phenomenally great at exactly one thing, and that thing was jamming the fuck out. And, on “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, that’s exactly what he does, and arguably better than he would ever do it again. The thing about just jamming out, versus a more tightly composed/structured pop song, is that there’s no real time limit for it, you just go however long you feel like going (or, alternately, however long the audience is into it). The line between “just right” and “overstaying your welcome” tends to get a lot fuzzier, and Brown himself often erred on the side of dragging his sweaty funk workouts on for too long, wearing out (admittedly great) grooves over the course of anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes. But “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, weighing in at 4 minutes and 17 seconds, is just long enough to bust a couple funky moves to, but not long enough to where you feel exhausted or browbeaten by the end of it. It feels both incredibly loose- everything from the production to the performances has the flavor of a spur-of-the-moment live take- and incredibly tight, not just in terms of length but in the instrumentation as well. The punchy, taut drumwork, crisp guitar strumming, and exclamatory horn sections all back up Brown’s muscular delivery to create an absolute monster of a dance track. In my opinion, Brown never quite recaptured that tightness on display here (though he often came close) and while I doubt his legacy as the father of funk would have been secured if this had been his only hit, his debut on the national stage gave us the perfect place to start.
#9: The Kinks- All Day and All of the Night
The Kinks made a pretty promising debut on the charts late last year with “You Really Got Me”, but only a few months later I found they stepped up their game across the board with “All Day and All of the Night”, which zeroes in on everything that worked about its predecessor and ratchets it up to 11. This song is pure nervous, jittery energy, and makes excellent use of Dave Davies’ gritty, slashing guitar tone; this is one of the earliest songs to compel the listener to air-guitar along with it. If there’s a weak point here, it’s frontman Ray Davies: His vocals aren’t bad by any stretch, but the lyrics here are fairly “love song 101”, and would have likely benefitted from being sung with a little more gusto. Even so, any song that provides such a raw burst of adrenaline- and so presciently predicts the birth of proto-punk and hard rock a few years down the line- is a real treat.
#8: Junior Walker & the All-Stars- Shotgun
It wouldn’t be a ‘60s best list without some classic Motown oldies, and here we have an often-forgotten chestnut from saxophonist Junior Walker. On some level, I get why “Shotgun” isn’t held up as one of the pinnacles of ‘60s soul- the vibe of the song is a little behind-the-times, at least as much Chubby Checker as it is Marvin Gaye. It still feels relevant to its time, though- Mostly because Walker just absolutely rips on that saxophone. Around this time, the stylistic gulf between rock and soul was rapidly widening as labels like Motown flourished and a new cohort of white artists remade rock in their own image. So, by hearkening back to a time when the boundary between the two genres was blurrier and more permeable, Walker was able to inject a throwback R&B number with the zest of a classic Chuck Berry guitar solo and find a unique niche that no one else was even thinking to fill this year. He so effectively integrates that classic, rock’n’roll edge here that it’s not the least bit surprising he was later drafted as a sideman for Foreigner in the ’80s.
#7: The Beatles- Ticket to Ride
In 1964, The Beatles burst onto the top 40 as a fully-formed, melodically imaginative merseybeat group, but a year later they found themselves facing a dilemma: They were suddenly everywhere, and if they didn’t quickly find ways to keep their sound fresh and exciting, it wouldn’t be long before the listening public was sick to death of the ever-present Beatlemania. Hell, after playing the same kind of music practically non-stop for years on end, even the band were starting to feel sick of themselves. If they were to persist, commercially or artistically, they needed a different approach. While songs like “Ticket to Ride” are still relatively pedestrian compared to the psychedelia they were rapidly barreling towards, it still offers a completely new flavor of Beatles: melancholic and contemplative, with a plaintive, droning A chord ringing out over Ringo Starr’s stuttering drumwork during the verse. That single-chord verse also helps the chorus to really pop out against it; the way the vocal line so satisfyingly arcs up into the tonic is a high that dozens of power-pop acts have spent their whole careers chasing. The only place where the song falters even slightly is the bridge, which doesn’t feel as seamlessly integrated as it could have been. It’s not bad, but I have a suspicion it was a leftover idea that didn’t originate in the same session the rest of the song was written in. Still, it’s an extremely minor nitpick, and the song overall is still a resounding success, as well as a brilliant first step in the Beatles’ transformation from a creative and commercial juggernaut to The Most Important Rock Band Of All Time®™©.
#6: The Yardbirds- Heart Full of Soul
Even in a year where the top 40 was more diverse and creatively fertile than ever before, “Heart Full of Soul” is a bit of an outlier. It’s just so damn dark, even by modern standards. Jeff Beck’s opening guitar figure immediately sets a tone of murky confusion and fear, and that backing chorus is downright ghostly, sounding like it could be drifting right out of a crypt. It’s a little less haunting when you read the lyrics and realize it’s mostly just a guy moping over his girlfriend breaking up with him, but it’s still mostly carried by the uniquely grim, morose tone. It’s probably giving this song too much credit to say it was the flashpoint for all the creepy, gothic music we know and love today, but I can’t help but feel like this was the first inkling of the gnarlier, more curdled direction rock music was about to take, and it makes a pretty impressive pitch for tones that would soon prove to be the bedrock of entire genres.
#5: Marvin Gaye- How Sweet It is to be Loved by You
One of the shocking things about the pop stars of the mid-late 60s was how rapidly they grew and evolved as artists. This phenomenon is mainly associated with the rock bands of the time (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” was only a year in the rearview, and Revolver just around the corner), but it also applies pretty aptly to a lot of soul and R&B artists too. On “How Sweet it is to be Loved by You”, it’s truly striking how much more mature and confident Marvin Gaye sounds, only four years into his recording career and less than two years after his mainstream breakthrough. In a lot of ways, this song feels like the beginning of something, the genesis of Motown as not just a star-making label but a particular artistic ethos. It’s everything you think of when you think of 60s soul- music to sway along happily to with a big smile plastered across your face. From the earnest, romantic lyricism, to the pitch-perfect backing vocals, to the playful saloon piano, it’s top-quality comfort-food music through and through.
#4: Sonny & Cher- I Got You, Babe
“I Got You Babe” is one of my favorite love songs from this era of pop. It almost reads like the baby boomer version of an All Hail West Texas-era Mountain Goats song. If songs like “Jenny” and “Riches and Wonders” are about the harsh, ugly reality of being young and broke and desperately in love, then “I Got You Babe” is about the rose-tinted, idealized fantasy of it; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if John Darnielle’s infamous Alpha Couple sang along to this song every time it came on the radio in the early stages of their relationship. That’s not to say this is as good as anything Darnielle was putting out in the early 2000s, but I still think it works, mostly because Sonny and Cher are both so believable as the song’s dual narrators. Neither are especially capable vocalists, but here that works to their benefit- they’re dumb kids who don’t know anything except that they love each other, so of course they sound a bit unpolished and rough. Crucially, that roughness also helps counterbalance the admittedly-kinda-chintzy instrumentation and give it more emotional weight than it frankly has any right to have. It’s far from perfect, but so is love most of the time, and “I Got You Babe”’s occasionally-clumsy, youthful optimism is just too damn charming not to win me over entirely.
#3: The Beach Boys- Help Me, Rhonda
As The Beatles started to chafe against the merseybeat sound they helped popularize, so too did Brian Wilson begin prodding at the edges of the sunshine pop and surf rock genres he found himself pigeonholed into. While fan-favorite “California Girls”, with its lush, orchestrated arrangement, is perfectly good (if a little lunkheaded), I maintain that it’s “Help Me, Rhonda” that really displays Wilson and The Beach Boys starting to break the mold and blossom into something truly special. This is quite easily their most emotionally complex set of lyrics yet- a low bar to clear, given their lyrical M.O. to this point was “enthusing boyishly about the virtues of surfing and having fun with your friends”, but I think “Help Me, Rhonda”’s plea to the titular woman to help the narrator forget his lost love has just enough genuine pathos to make the song feel like a bit more than just a turn-your-brain-off good time. But of course, even at their lyrical peak, The Beach Boys were always mainly about two things: killer melodies and ear-candy production, both of which are found in abundance here. The buoyant group vocals singing “help-me-Rhon-da-yeah” before everything cuts out and Al Jardine finishes it off with “GET her outta my heart!” is their most deceptively simple (and I’d say all-time best) hook, and the group’s trademark feel-good vocal harmonies bob and weave playfully throughout the whole song and form a dense tapestry, only occasionally pierced by Carl Wilson’s jangly guitar lead (another covertly fantastic hook). It has all the ebullience and melody The Beach Boys were already known for, but it also deepens and expands their sound just enough to make for a perfect segue into the Pet Sounds era.
#2: Bob Dylan- Like a Rolling Stone
Apologies in advance, because I’m going to have a lot to say about these last two songs. In my defense though, how could I not? Especially for “Like a Rolling Stone”, arguably the single most critically-adored song of all time. I certainly see why it’s so beloved: just as a piece of writing and performance, “Like a Rolling Stone” is a tour-de-force. The folk-rock sonic palette was revolutionary at the time and still sounds expansive and vibrant today, the Hammond organ and electric guitar giving the song a bold, surging edge that still feels rooted in Dylan’s folksy, troubadour origins. Dylan himself arguably defined a generation with his vocal performance, delivering the verses with a bone-dry sense of humor and a sarcastic bite that swells into a shout to the heavens on the chorus. And it might have all come off as awfully self-impressed and pompous if it wasn’t backing up one of the finest sets of lyrics Dylan ever penned, a truly caustic excoriation of a shallow social climber reduced to homelessness and abject poverty. Yes, let’s not forget here that “Like a Rolling Stone” is, well, kind of an incredibly mean song, mostly dedicated to ruthlessly mocking someone who Dylan feels has finally gotten what they deserve. Still, while it is mean, it’s also clever and creatively-phrased enough to counterbalance that, and it never tips over into outright cruelty. That chorus hammers home that the song is ultimately a question: now that you’re not so high and mighty, now that the socialite lifestyle you gave everything for has left you penniless and alone… how does it feel? Was it worth it? Dylan wisely never attempts to answer the question himself, but I think the sneering contempt he conveys for the materialist life this person used to lead speaks for itself. Personally, I don’t think I’d quite count the song as an all-time favorite- It feels too big for that. It exhibits a peculiar mix of the thornily, uncomfortably specific and the all-encompassingly broad that renders it difficult to connect with on a visceral level, but it too perfectly accomplishes what it’s trying to do, too confidently owns its reputation as the Best Song Ever, for me to deny it the same glowing praise so many before me have given it.
#1: The Beatles- Help!
“Help!” is the crowning achievement of the Beatles’ early years. Hell, it has a good claim as the single best thing John Lennon ever wrote, right up there with “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Across the Universe” and “Imagine”. In 1965, Lennon was on top of the world. In less than two years, he had gone from grinding out six-hour gigs in Hamburg nightclubs and sleeping in a back room with his three bandmates to selling out stadiums full of women howling for him to marry them on the spot. His life had become a whirlwind of security guards, international flights, and promo shoots, he had far surpassed even his wildest fantasies of success and fortune, and he was fucking miserable. He was gaining weight, depressed, abusing drugs and alcohol, and for all his fame he found himself missing the days when he was just a guy who played in a band. So, he did what any musician worth their salt would do: he wrote a song about how he felt. From the opening seconds of “Help!”, every line is a punch to the gut. The gang-vocal cries of “HELP!” hit with the impact of a freight train, and Lennon’s interjections in between sound flat-out desperate. The lyrics display a bracing honesty rarely seen in the top 40, then or now; it’s not just about needing help, but about learning how to need help, the realization that no man is an island and that needing a shoulder to lean on doesn’t make one weak. It’s all wrapped up with a pitch-perfect composition. Lennon’s melody and Paul McCartney’s countermelody blend into a single gorgeous whole, and Harrison contributes crucial details that bring the song to life: the descending three-note lead in the chorus and the serpentine licks that usher in each verse enrich the song immeasurably. Finally, the oddly eerie note it ends on is a somber finish that highlights the emotional stakes of the song flawlessly. It’s an all-time great pop song, and no one could have made it but these guys.