The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1966

By 1966, the countercultural revolution was already well under way on both sides of the Atlantic, but this year still brought advances in both music and culture at large that would reverberate throughout the rest of the decade and onwards. Walt Disney passed away in December of this year, effectively bringing an end to Disney’s post-WWII era of cultural omnipresence as the zeitgeist strayed ever-further from the inoffensive, family-friendly fare he built his fortune on. It was the year of Ken Kesey’s first “acid test” parties, which would quickly spark a culture-wide fascination with LSD, and by the end of the year psychedelia was slowly but surely creeping its way into the top 40. This was also the year of Pet Sounds, Revolver and Blonde on Blonde, towering obelisks of rock culture worshipped to this day by generations of critics and fans alike. All this and more added up to another excellent year for the Hot 100, and the best of the bunch were all total delights to revisit or discover. On with the show!

#10: Johnny Rivers- Secret Agent Man

I have a sneaking suspicion that part of why I like this song as much as I do is its resemblance to another piece of well-known TV music (just try singing the verses to Andy Sturmer’s Teen Titans theme over the verses here, or vice versa), but I still wouldn’t hesitate to call “Secret Agent Man” a winner, even for those with no nostalgia for either ‘60s British crime dramas or 2000s superhero cartoons. Was this the origin of the classic pairing of surf rock and spy-themed media? Nah, that was probably actually Monty Norman’s immortal James Bond theme from 1962, but I still wouldn’t discount Johnny Rivers’ contribution to the two being as intertwined as they are today. This song is just so cool! Rivers’ guitar licks are all super-slick, the lyrics perfectly capture that classic, cloak-and-dagger sense of badass danger- hell, even “Johnny Rivers” is just a cool-ass name. Listening to this song really does make you feel like a globetrotting secret agent with a license to kill, and if that isn’t the highest praise a song called “Secret Agent Man” can be given, I don’t know what is.

#9: The Four Tops- Reach Out I’ll Be There

Here we have yet another piece of classic 60s Motown, courtesy of writing and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland. The trio was responsible for large swathes of Motown’s golden-era hits, including Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet it Is” last year. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is another example of these three incredibly gifted songwriters operating at the peak of their powers, delivering more of the warm, passionate soul their label built its reputation on. In particular, the flute-and-guitar intro is a really nice touch, and in combination with the thumping 4/4 beat it seems almost predictive of disco, nearly a decade before the genre’s proper birth. Eddie Holland’s lyrics take a page out of the “Stand By Me” book, a promise to a lover to be there for them when they’re at their lowest. It doesn’t quite have the universality or the apocalyptic implications that made “Stand By Me” the masterpiece it is, but it’s a lovely sentiment nonetheless, and lead Top Levi Stubbs brings an impassioned vocal performance that fully seals the deal. It’s yet another notch in the white-hot winning streak Motown was rapidly accruing as the pop scene around them evolved ever-faster.

#8: The Beatles- Paperback Writer

If “Help!” was the apex of John Lennon’s pre-Revolver songwriting career, then “Paperback Writer” is arguably the apex of Paul McCartney’s. It’s a prime example of the kind of song McCartney would prove time and time again to be a master of: the character study. It may be written from a first-person perspective, but “Paperback Writer” feels much more of a piece with “Eleanor Rigby” or “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” then it does with “Love Me Do” or “Can’t Buy Me Love”. In particular, “Eleanor Rigby” feels like an appropriate reference point; both songs put on display the sort of crushing, upper-middle-class ennui that, ever since, has fascinated similarly sharp-tongued popsmiths like Damon Albarn and Adam Schlesinger. Eleanor Rigby waits at her window for someone who never arrives, Father McKenzie gives sermons to an empty chapel, and the poor bastard in “Paperback Writer” mails his manuscript off to a publisher with a letter begging for an escape from his joyless daily grind. It’s unsurprising to me that McCartney has maintained that this song wasn’t inspired by anyone he knew in real life, because “Paperback Writer” is so T.M.I. From the obvious clues that the narrator’s novel is basically all about his own crappy life, to his promises to change the whole thing if asked to, to the simple desperation of “but I need a break” in the final verse, the whole thing is one man baring his miserable, unremarkable soul to someone he doesn’t even know. It’s a testament to the composition here that you never even think to squirm in your seat while hearing it, yet it ties into the lyrical themes perfectly. McCarney’s words come in a breathless, unceasing cadence over the uptempo, skittering beat, while that single G chord drones on and on in the background, building up tension through each verse until it finally hits that C at the end, symbolizing a brief respite from the narrator’s mundane train of thought. Of course, just because it’s almost entirely one chord doesn’t mean it’s boring- McCartney’s thrumming, propulsive bassline and George Harrison’s surf-inflected guitar leads make sure of that. It’s the sort of wry yet empathetic character writing that made Macca an idol to generations of songwriters, and the music makes the whole thing go down smooth.

#7: Frank Sinatra- Strangers in the Night

Frank Sinatra’s disdain for this, one of his last massive hits, has been well-documented. He famously called it “the worst fucking song [he had] ever heard” and routinely complained about playing it live during his concerts. Well, Sinatra was flat-out wrong, “Strangers in the Night” is handily one of the best songs of his career, right up there with “Fly Me to the Moon” and “My Way” (which he also supposedly hated, the prick). It’s just a great, simple love song, recalling the night he first met his partner. It captures the timidity and excitement of new love so well, and the framing of it, as a recollection of a vibrant youth long-since past, makes perfect sense for the style. No matter how stubbornly it stuck to the charts throughout the 60s, Sinatra’s sound was now the music of the past, and centering the song around a fond memory of a bygone era gives it a rosy, nostalgic sheen, which paradoxically insulates it from the sands of time. Sinatra feels aware that the zeitgeist has passed him by, and as a result “Strangers in the Night” scans as an intentional period piece, rather than an outdated style trying to pretend it’s still relevant. So many of the worst songs of this decade clung petulantly to a sound whose time had come and gone, but this is one of the few that serves as a reminder of why that sound captured so many hearts to begin with.

#6: Wilson Pickett- 634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)

If it’s not already obvious, I’m a big fan of Motown, but their rival label Stax more than deserves their due praise as well. The birthplace of Southern soul fostered almost as much greatness as its Detroit counterpart, and though the label is never outright named in the actual song, the parenthetical title of Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)” feels extremely fitting. It perfectly displays the bluesy, gospel-influenced sound that Stax is known for today, with a swaggering horn section and female backing choir rounding out Pickett’s charismatic vocals. Hell, with that jingle-ready chorus, it could almost be a theme song for the label and its famous studio (where Wilson, naturally, recorded this and most of his other hits). It feels just a shade more dated than the very best soul of the era, but “634-5789” is still proof that Motown wasn’t and isn’t the be-all, end-all of ‘60s soul.

#5: Bobby Fuller Four- I Fought the Law

The Bobby Fuller Four’s short-lived career culminated in this, one of the last truly great rock & roll singles. Written by Buddy Holly collaborator Sonny Curtis, “I Fought the Law” taps into the original, rebellious spirit of rock & roll by espousing one simple and eternal truth: the law sucks, and fighting it is not only cool as hell, but sometimes even necessary. I’ve heard people call this song a “cautionary tale”, because it makes no attempt to delude the audience about the consequences of fighting the law, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. As the lyric makes plain, our narrator didn’t choose a life of crime, circumstances forced him to turn to armed robbery, just to keep himself afloat. Thus, the stakes are established, and it becomes not the story of a violent criminal getting their deserved punishment, but an ordinary guy who had no other options being screwed over by the same system that failed him in the first place. The instrumentation, on the other hand, feels like it embodies the narrator’s unbroken spirit: the law may have won this time, but he’s not down for the count just yet. It’s equal parts outlaw country and classic punk rock, making it no surprise that everyone from The Clash and Green Day to Bruce Springsteen and Hank Williams Jr. have tried their hand at covering it. Plus, drummer DeWayne Quirico does six snare hits on the “robbing people with a six-gun” line, which is just a self-evidently perfect musical choice.

#4: The Beatles- We Can Work it Out

It’s perhaps darkly ironic that this is one of the last songs John Lennon and Paul McCartney ever wrote together. Despite the song’s apparent optimism, right there in the title, the two never did work it out. Their relationship would only become more fraught over the next several years until the bad blood tore their band apart, and they would remain estranged, to one degree or another, until Lennon’s death a decade later. All that external baggage almost seems to work to this song’s benefit, though. “We Can Work It Out”, despite its title, is not an optimistic song. It’s a song for a relationship on its absolute last legs, a relationship that’s one argument away from being utterly broken beyond repair. The refrain feels like it’s clinging to the vanishingly small possibility that the narrator and the target can reconcile their differences, and the rest of the song pleads for some, any kind of resolution. “We can work it out and get it straight or say goodnight” is an ultimatum that defines the song tonally: they can either sit down and hash things out one more time, or let things come to an end between them. McCartney’s verse is cajoling, asking repeatedly to see things from his perspective, while Lennon’s middle eight is brusque and impatient. Both men have one thing in common, though: they refuse to change. Despite the feints toward neutrality (“only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong”), the narrator here is fundamentally determined to make the other person come to him, refusing to engage them on their terms. And that’s why the song feels so tragic: while the sentiment of wanting to repair a relationship is entirely believable, it’s also clear that the relationship is, ultimately, doomed to fail. The narrator doesn’t really want to compromise or change, and it’s that very human failing that makes this such a potent lyric. Sonically, it’s yet another slam-dunk: Lennon’s harmonium makes for a unique counterpoint to George Harrison’s guitar, McCartney’s vocal melody sits beautifully in the mix, and the switch to a minor key for Lennon’s middle 8 is an inspired bit of musical storytelling.

#3: Simon & Garfunkel- The Sound of Silence

“The Sound of Silence” really is astonishingly well-written, even outside the grading curve of chart pop. I have no reservations about praising the likes of John Lennon or Ben E. King as lyricists, but the sheer command of imagery, of symbolism and tone, that Paul Simon displays throughout this song’s five verses is on another level entirely. It unmistakably grapples with themes of alienation, of emotional distances not easily bridged, yet it also feels very interpretive. Is the song condemning the public’s inability to communicate, or merely commenting on it? Do the crowds in the song worship shallow artifice because of their emotional isolation, or is it the other way around? These are questions that the song leaves up in the air, because Simon is savvy enough to know that allowing the audience to make up their own minds gives the song more power than any concrete answer could. For all of Paul Simon’s lyrical genius, though, I think the commercial failure of the original, all-acoustic rendition does a lot to prove the merits of the ‘65 remix. The instrumentation here provides a visceral heft that acts as a counterbalance to Simon’s philosophical ruminations. That steady, insistent drum and bass groove (a post-hoc addition to the song that Simon reportedly disliked) provided the hint of crunch that set Simon and Garfunkel apart from folk-pop lightweights like Peter, Paul and Mary. It sweetens the song only just enough to make the message palatable to the casual, everyday listener- any more and the effect would be diluted. All in all, it’s a masterpiece of folk music. There are tons of songs from this era that have withstood the test of time, and even a handful I like more than this, but this song feels like it has the potential to be truly eternal, in a way only folk music can be. For as long as humans remain estranged from their own emotions, there will be someone, somewhere, who will need “The Sound of Silence”. 

#2: The Young Rascals- Good Lovin’

I’ll admit, there are moments when I feel a bit sheepish about placing this song so highly. I’m aware that the production is a bit spotty, with the vocals never sitting quite right against the energetic instrumental. I know that lyrically, it’s awfully basic, certainly a lot of empty calories compared to the likes of “We Can Work it Out” or “The Sound Of Silence”. It doesn’t escape my notice that the gospel elements feel a tad out-of-place, or that lead singer Felix Cavaliere treads perhaps an inch too close to “black voice” for comfort. But every time this song comes on, I instantly stop caring about all of those things, because there are very few pop songs that get my head bobbing and my toes tapping as quickly as “Good Lovin’”. This song is simply impossible for me to resist: the beat is too infectious, the guitar work too bright and punky, the vocals too enthusiastically, cheekily slapdash to not immediately shut down all my critical thinking centers and send a massive rush of dopamine right to my brain. Every time I listen to this song I’m jamming out within seconds, and regardless of how well it holds up under a critical microscope, I think that in and of itself is proof enough of its merit as a pop song. They may have set a record for “fastest drop in quality” after this (nearly every other song of theirs was a watered-down, whitewashed ripoff of what soul artists were doing at the time), but I can’t deny this one gloriously fun slice of raucous, goofy power-pop.

#1: The Beach Boys- Good Vibrations

If any one song has come to be synonymous with Brian Wilson as he exists in the public imagination- the meticulous composer and producer, the unstable, tortured creative genius- it is undoubtedly “Good Vibrations”. Famously the most expensive radio single ever produced at the time of release, Wilson spent a whopping 216 days polishing every last second of “Good Vibrations” to a mirror shine, and it shows. Make no mistake, every ambitious, complex pop epic or mini-epic with different sections owes its existence, at least in part, to this song. Without “Good Vibrations”, there is no “Bohemian Rhapsody”, no “Thick as a Brick” or “2112”- hell, even “Sicko Mode” probably wouldn’t exist without “Good Vibrations” paving the way. This is a great song, and I’ll get into why in a second, but almost as importantly it’s proof positive that there was and is an audience for music that wants to surprise you, music that takes wild twists and turns, music that rises above simplistic pop structures to deliver something that demands attention, dissection and, yes, even analysis. At first blush it’s easy to see why the other Beach Boys were so bearish about releasing this as a single: it is, by leaps and bounds, more intricate, experimental and challenging than anything else they had released to this point. But once every damn part of the song has gotten stuck in your head, its commercial success feels like a foregone conclusion. The refrain that piles up three wonderful, bespoke melodies all on top of each other, the whistling theremin line, the thrumming cello triplets, the staccato organ- somehow, despite all the hairpin pivots and sonic density, every part of it is hummable and memorable in the best possible way. The Beach Boys have songs with better hooks, but none of them manage to cram this many good ones into only three and a half minutes. The use of tape splicing to string separately-recorded segments together makes the song feel like a tapestry of contrasting moods and tones. Every section brings new, delightful melodies, new flavors of instrumental beauty, and new lyrics that explore the core theme of cosmic vibrations from a new angle. As easy and as fun as it is to dump on Mike Love, his lyric here is the perfect fit: a sunny, innocent take on flower-power and free love. It’s trippy and offbeat enough to reel in the hippies and weirdos, but still fun and immediate enough that even a little kid could have a great time with it (something that, as good as it is, I can’t really say for the majority of Pet Sounds). It’s a phenomenal balance of unbound creativity and populist universality, and though Wilson’s decline into schizophrenia and addiction would leave his and The Beach Boys’ creative potential largely unrealized for the next two-plus decades, songs like “Good Vibrations” still stand as a testament to his vision and abilities, and we’re all the richer as a culture for it.

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