Any attempt by historians to neatly demarcate where one cultural epoch ends and another begins is always going to be at least a little reductive. In 1968, there was still plenty of music and art that felt more of a piece with the zeitgeist of the years prior, and many of the trends that rose to dominance were starting to crop up here and there as early as 1965. But I think it’s still pretty fair to say that this year feels like a turning point somehow. When I think of the 60s up to this point, it’s all colorful, upbeat rock and soul, pastels and carefree dancing. 1968 and onwards isn’t quite so peachy: Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are both shot dead. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon preside over increasingly horrific war crimes in Vietnam. Hair opens on Broadway. Grim stuff all around, I would say. In all seriousness though, I think 1968 is when you can really start to see a lot of pop music getting a little more raw, a little more frayed at the edges. You can almost hear the constant social unrest starting to take an audible toll on even the most glamorous pop stars. That is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing: 1968 was yet another phenomenal year for the charts, even as protests raged and soldiers fell. Here we have another 10 classic cuts of 60s gold, and as always, I’ve had a blast discovering (or rediscovering) them all. On with the show!
#10: Tommy James and the Shondells- Mony Mony
These days, “Mony Mony” is a Billy Idol song. When we imagine this song, it’s in the day-glo, buzzing neon hues of the ‘80s, with all the bombast and excess that came along with them. However, for nearly two decades, before Idol’s version topped the charts, “Mony Mony” belonged to Tommy James and the Shondells. Like Idol, James was never especially convincing as a rocker; both men were, at their core, pop stars with a penchant for costuming themselves in the rock trends of their respective eras. Also like Idol, he was at his best with a big, energetic singalong hook to hang a song on, and you could make a strong case that neither one of them ever found a better one than “Mony Mony”. That call and response is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, the keyboard stabs in the verse are fist-pumpingly energetic, and the rougher, 60s-era production gives it just enough of a rock edge for it to not feel like a defanged imitation. Importantly, weighing in at a trim 2 minutes and 46 seconds, it’s also just long enough to feel like a complete idea without overextending itself (as Idol’s five-minute-plus rendition starkly reveals, there is, at most, three minutes’ worth of material here). Overall, a great, hummable pop tune, well worth revisiting whether you’re a fan of the cover or not.
#9: The Beatles- Revolution
As with many other Beatles songs, “Revolution” is extremely near to my heart, but my feelings on it are, put lightly, a little more complicated. As my personal politics have evolved over the past decade, so too has my relationship with this song, because “Revolution” is the most undeniably political song in the Beatles canon, and it serves as a portent of the dubious legacy John Lennon would ultimately forge amongst the American left wing. Now, though I like both, I’ve always preferred this harder-rocking single version to the more mellow, bluesy album cut, but a close read of the lyrics reveals a message much more in line with the latter’s vibe than the former’s: a snide critique of revolutionary thinking and radical leftism as antithetical to Lennon’s own pacifistic, open-minded worldview. When it was released, the song got a lot of backlash from the leftist activists of the day, and especially from where I stand here in September of 2020, it’s hard to disagree with them. In 1968, the political climate was looking pretty dire, and for a lot of people who had a lot more skin in the game than he did, Lennon’s “come on guys, can’t we all just get along” attitude was very demonstrably not cutting it. It’s pretty hard to ignore the hypocrisy of one of the richest musicians in the world telling people that everything’s “gonna be alright”, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding the whole thing to be in massively poor taste. And yet. I still hear it. The part of me that grew up being taught the virtues of non-violence and cooperation still wants to love this song, wants to understand it as an expression of earnest, good-faith skepticism towards the more hard-edged, uncompromising side of leftism. Maybe “we’d all love to see the plan” is a fair criticism of a would-be revolutionary, you know? Maybe radical ideologies ought to be approached with a bit of healthy caution. My point here is that I think there’s room to interpret the song as less anti-revolutionary than its harshest critics have. Then there’s the musical aspect, which only complicates things further, because the single version is a veritable molotov cocktail of a rocker. It’s all squalling, overclocked guitar amps and distorted, snarling vocals; If Lennon intended to quell any riots with this, it certainly doesn’t show through in his performance. I know that when I first fell in love with this song as a tween, it sure as hell didn’t make me think the idea of revolution was any less appealing. It kicked ass back then and I’d be lying if I said I don’t still think it kind of kicks ass now. Maybe I can’t love it the same way I used to, but I also can’t deny that there’s still a special place in my heart for this thorny, odd little number.
#8: Stevie Wonder- Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day
It’s been a hot minute since I’ve talked about Stevie Wonder, hasn’t it? Just because he’s been AWOL from the past five best lists doesn’t mean he fell off the face of the earth after ‘63, though. In fact, Stevie had big hits in both 1966 and 1967, and both of them were pretty good- if doing honorable mentions for these lists wouldn’t mean hours upon hours of extra work, there’s a good chance “Uptight” and “I Was Made to Love Her” would have both gotten a well-deserved shout-out. “Shoo-Be-Doo…” finds an 18-year-old Stevie finally starting to grow into his talents. He still has some lingering traces of puberty in his voice, but it’s apparent he’s a lot closer to really finding his footing, both as a performer and as a songwriter. It’s probably the earliest example of that classic Stevie Wonder sound, which he would refine to a perfect polish in the ‘70s: warm, funky rhythms, honey-sweet melodies, and Stevie’s trusty clavinet, which makes its recorded debut on this song. What ultimately keeps me from falling over myself to praise how brilliant this is is the lyric, which, while not terrible, is nonetheless a fair distance below the high standards Stevie would soon set for himself. It’s a confrontational song, promising that if the target keeps mistreating their woman, she’ll eventually leave them for Stevie. Now, just as a concept, I’m not exactly a huge fan of the “steal your girl” anthem, but the bigger issue here is that it feels like such an awkward fit for the music, which is mostly light and carefree. I actually think the lyric here, taken by itself, is solid enough that I could probably get behind it if it was paired with something a bit darker and tougher, and mid-tier Stevie is still leagues beyond what most artists can do at their best, but as it stands, “Shoo-Be-Doo…” is a serving of two great tastes that just don’t taste quite as good together as I hoped.
#7: Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell- You’re All I Need to Get By
Thank God Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were smart enough to recognize what a great team they were together. Their combined powers, backed by writing team Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, were too perfectly aligned to leave it at just a couple of singles, so for their follow-up album You’re All I Need, they enlisted Ashford & Simpson to write and produce almost the entire A-side, including the eponymous lead single. Much of the same praise I gave “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” also applies here (great vocals and production, works excellently as a love song, etc.), although the tone is very different. Where “Ain’t No Mountain” was a joyous celebration of love and devotion, “You’re All I Need” is more desperate, more raw- a tone that, sadly, matches the circumstances of its recording. In October 1967, Terrell was diagnosed with brain cancer after collapsing onstage during a performance with Gaye, and though an emergency surgery allowed her to temporarily resume her career, her diagnosis was, for all intents and purposes, a death sentence. “You’re All I Need”, for all its trademark Motown warmth, audibly carries that weight with it. It’s not about how “ain’t no mountain high enough” to keep them apart anymore, it’s about looking back at all the mountains they’ve already had to climb for each other, and forward to the mountains to come, reassuring each other that their relationship is worth the strife and hardship. Though it’s not quite the immortal banger that “Ain’t No Mountain” was and is, that sense of increased emotional stakes makes it just as valuable in its own way.
#6: The Chambers Brothers- Time Has Come Today
Of all the psychedelic pop hits of the late ‘60s, few are a more urgent call to arms than “Time Has Come Today”, a song that, in spirit, feels closer to the pantheon of protest folk and punk rock than to the more flower-power, free-love side of counterculture. As a protest song, it might be a little too nonspecific for some, but in my eyes that just makes it more timeless and perpetually relevant than it would be otherwise. Although the references to drugs and the “tumbling tides” of social change give it a very specifically late-60s feel, it could be fairly easily applied to anyone feeling dissatisfied with the current status quo at any point in time. Whatever’s going wrong with the world, “Time Has Come Today”’s simple response is to say it’s time to deal with it, right now. The time has come today. The music reflects that immediacy, with stomping percussion and aggressive, jangling guitars. Frontman Lester Chambers is less of a singer here than a rally leader, delivering the lyrics in an authoritative shout that makes his proclamations seem like a matter of life and death. Hell, even his declaration that his soul has been “psychedelicized” feels a lot less goofy than it really should. Of course, since this is still psychedelia, there’s a tempo-shifting breakdown in the middle that was undoubtedly a real mind-blower for any hippies listening to this back in the day. Overall, a great song, and one of the decade’s most successful fusions of trippy drug rock and broader social consciousness.
#5: Simon & Garfunkel- Mrs. Robinson
I don’t know how novel an observation this is, but “Mrs. Robinson” just screams Paul McCartney to me. It really feels like Paul Simon’s stab at a McCartney-esque character study, a sort of melange of every people-watching exercise Macca had put out to this point. Still, while the concept, the melodies, and even some of the vocal affects feel markedly Beatlesque, Simon’s lyric takes a much more American approach to his dissection of the titular woman, and gives it a healthy dose of his own trademark inscrutability. Supposedly, although the duo didn’t officially decide what name to use for the song until Mike Nichols tapped them for his then-upcoming film The Graduate, this was written with the life of Eleanor Roosevelt in mind. I’d say they made a good call changing it, both because “And here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and because swapping it for a more everyday name makes the character’s prickly listlessness a lot easier to connect with on a broad level. Throughout this song, there’s a sense of something slipping steadily away, and whether that’s the golden age of Americana, the public’s faith in the integrity of our democratic process, or just the titular protagonist’s sanity is up to the listener to decide. As with all of Simon and Garfunkel’s best work, though, one needn’t ponder the meaning excessively to enjoy it: it’s a jaunty little folk-rocker, with some really fantastic percussion work making it a perfect fit for morning jogs and afternoon drives alike, and the quicker tempo gives Simon a chance to bust out some simple but ear-grabbing licks on his acoustic guitar that bring the whole thing to life.
#4: The 5th Dimension- Stoned Soul Picnic
When it comes to psychedelic music of the sixties, most people think rock music. And that’s perfectly understandable, with artists like Pink Floyd, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix remaining cherished fixtures of stoner culture to this day, but by ‘68, no genre was safe from the mind-expanding influence of psychedelics. In particular, some of the “psychedelic soul” of the era, while not as culturally iconic as its rock counterparts, is still well worth revisiting. One of my personal favorites from this subgenre is “Stoned Soul Picnic”, by California vocal group The 5th Dimension. This song is just a joy to listen to, radiating more positive vibes than anything else released this year. The psychedelia here might be a bit less pronounced, but the blissed-out, swaying groove still strikes me as at least somewhat indebted to an altered state of consciousness (not to mention the fact that no one has ever been this excited about the prospect of a picnic while sober). I also just adore the way the tempo slows and staggers right before launching into the refrain’s gorgeous vocal interplay, as well as the organ-assisted outro. It might not provide the third-eye-opening spiritual odyssey that, say, a classic Hendrix tune might, but “Stoned Soul Picnic”’s dreamy, sun-soaked atmosphere is one I could happily spend an afternoon in, with or without any mind-altering substances.
#3: Steppenwolf- Born to be Wild
Would you believe me if I said that prior to this year, I didn’t know “Born to be Wild”? Apparently it’s been overplayed to death, but I had the pleasure of hearing it with a fresh set of ears for this project, and I implore you all to do the same. “Born to be Wild” is the song every hard rock song wishes it could be: mean, tough-as-nails electric blooze outfitted with a totally badass main riff and a take-no-shit attitude. It’s got the kicking tempo to earn its status as the ultimate biker anthem, and frontman John Kay has the whiskey-soaked swagger to sell even some of the sillier lyrics (it takes a certain charisma to convincingly sing “I like smokin’ lightning”). The organ accents also give it a nice bit of sonic depth that would be sorely missed in later acts like AC/DC. Sure, it’s not a song that requires a lot of brain cells to enjoy, but goddamn if “Born to be Wild” isn’t one of the purest distillations of rock‘n’roll coolness ever put to record.
#2: Otis Redding- (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay
In August of 1967, Otis Redding was on the cusp of greatness. Over the course of the ‘60s he had steadily built a name for himself as an artist and performer, and just weeks earlier, he had turned in a career-making performance at the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival. After nearly a decade in the game, he was perfectly poised for a real commercial breakthrough- not just a hit, but a full-fledged, inescapable chart-topper. With all this in mind, Redding and collaborator Steve Cropper sat down and wrote the song that would make him a superstar. Despite all this, “The Dock of the Bay” is less a victory lap and more a weary, hard-won sigh of satisfaction. Redding’s performance here recalls Ray Charles at the peak of his powers: though he recorded this at the tender age of 26, there’s a sort of craggy warmth and wisdom to his voice that immediately draws the listener in. The lyrics paint a picture of the narrator’s life that’s far from perfect, but there’s a sense that he’s at peace with his circumstances; when he sings “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do/So I guess I’ll remain the same”, there’s melancholy, yes, but also acceptance. It’s not a sad song and it’s not a happy song, for lack of a better word I’d call it a “life song”. It feels like Redding is pouring all his accomplishments and regrets out, looking back at it all and letting the weight of his own mortality settle upon his shoulders, embodied in Cropper’s note-perfect guitar leads throughout the song. Though we can never know what Redding might have gone on to accomplish had he not lost his life in a plane crash mere days after recording the vocals for this song, he could hardly have asked for a more artful and poignant send-off than this, one of the greatest soul singles of all time.
#1: The Beatles- Hey Jude
“Hey Jude” was one of the first songs I ever truly loved. Ever since I’ve known the concept of a “favorite song”, this has been one of them for me. One of the first memories I have of writing about music was scribbling down my top ten favorite songs in a journal at around age twelve or so and putting “Hey Jude” at number one. I can still vividly recall writing of the extended coda, “…It’s a good feeling”, and here I am, almost a decade later, unable to think of anything that better sums up the soul-stirring magic of this song. ‘68 saw the Beatles coming full circle from their meticulous, psychedelic cabaret of 1967, retreating into more raw, rootsy territory, and despite the massive orchestra backing the second half, “Hey Jude” still has that rootsiness to it- there’s a sense of universality here, you could play it on an single acoustic guitar around a campfire and it would still sound wonderful. Of course, if you tried that, it would be hard to fully capture that indelible transition in the middle of the song, where the group vocals keep building up volume with “better, better, better” until Paul McCartney lets out a wail like there’s a supernova bursting from his chest, and that glorious, glorious “na-na-na” section just bowls you over completely. For 50 years, people have been trying to write a better “na-na-na” than the one in “Hey Jude”, and not a one of them has even come close to matching the tidal wave of blissful, everything-will-be-okay comfort and positivity that The Beatles unleash three minutes into this song. I’ve probably heard “Hey Jude” well over two hundred times, and every single time I’ve found myself overwhelmed by the camaraderie and hopefulness of it all. A good feeling, indeed.