Tempted as I am to make the obvious joke and say ’69 was a very “nice” year, such a mild descriptor really doesn’t do this year justice. A man named Armstrong landed on the moon, a crook named Nixon landed in the White House, and the Manson Family killed eight Hollywood hot-shots because some whacko misheard a Beatles lyric. That’s three feature films’ worth of history right there, and we’re just getting started! Even restricting our view to just the music world, 1969 was the year of Woodstock, possibly the single most famous music festival of all time. We got debut releases from rock titans like Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, and The Stooges. Most importantly, the Billboard charts had another damn fine year, with plenty of great rock, soul, and even folk/country adding up to a diverse and colorful year-end hot 100 list. If we’re playing the ranking game, I’d probably place it just a hair below the two years preceding it, mostly since the ‘70s easy-listening/soft rock boom is audibly setting itself in motion by now, but before we delve into that cesspool of suckage we’ve got 10 more fantastic songs from this rollercoaster of a year, to finish off this rollercoaster of a decade. On with the show!
#10: The Zombies- Time of the Season
The Zombies’ magnum opus Odessey and Oracle is the textbook definition of a sleeper hit. Initially released in 1968 to modest sales and little critical attention, it’s slowly but surely grown in stature over the past half-century, and today it’s widely considered one of the artistic pinnacles of the first wave of psychedelic rock. O&O is mostly really stately, mature baroque pop- Great stuff, sure, but very meticulous and artsy, very Pet Sounds-y. And, as Pet Sounds itself proved, even when the public was more receptive than ever to psychedelia, “Burt Bacharach on LSD” just wasn’t really a recipe for smash hits. The label suits figured all the young hippies would dig the dark, antiwar message of “Butcher’s Tale”, but hindsight is 20/20, and from where I stand it’s obvious that the song that eventually caught on would be the hot-and-heavy, hard-groovin’ album closer “Time of the Season”. As much affection as I have for ‘60s counterculture, it’s undeniable that there were at least as many hippies who were just in it for good times and easy hookups as there were activists passionate about a radical antiwar agenda, and I’ll give you three guesses which of those two demographics was easier to get the average mainstream listener on board with. Frontman Colin Blunstone’s breathy, sensual delivery of “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” is the exact right mix of spacey and grounded, confident and seductive but without a trace of arrogance. The rest of the band goes whole-hog with a slinky, trippy bass/drum groove and proto-funk guitar stabs, and in lieu of a proper chorus we’re treated to TWO improvised, noodly organ jams, which is an unqualified plus in my book. It’s creative and unconventional enough to be a worthy addition to the psychedelic rock canon, but it’s also just a really catchy, infectious jam, one of the few songs that makes just as much sense in a smoke-filled basement as it does on the dance floor. Though the weird structure keeps it from being quite as satisfying as I want it to be, “Time of the Season” makes for a great send-off for psychedelia’s tenure on the pop charts.
#9: The Beatles- Come Together
Of course I love “Come Together”. I’m a bassist, it’s in the rules. They don’t let you play bass if you don’t love “Come Together”. Along with “Feel Good Inc.”, “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Seven Nation Army”, “Come Together” is one of those songs that’s permanently imprinted into the DNA of every kid who’s ever picked up a four-string (never mind that two of those songs are younger than I am). Besides that immortal main bass riff, though, “Come Together” still occupies a bit of a singular place in The Beatles’ discography. It’s been said that this is one of the only times The Beatles sounded properly ‘cool’, and I think that’s pretty fair to say. The acid-fried blues rock number is unlike anything else in the John Lennon songbook: where most of his more “statement”-oriented songs are direct and plain-spoken, often to a fault, “Come Together” is so oblique and impressionistic that trying to derive any kind of concrete meaning from it is probably more trouble than it’s worth. In fact, you’re probably better off not focusing on the words here, because what this song lacks in coherent lyricism or compelling emotion (Lennon famously called it “gobbledygook”) it makes up for in sheer sonic interest. Naturally, the bassline is the star here, but every part of this song is just a treat for the ears, from the weird, clattering percussion to the swirling crunch of the guitars in the pre-chorus to the keyboard-assisted outro showing off some of George Harrison’s all-time best lead work. I’ve definitely cooled on “Come Together” a bit since I first learned to play it on bass, but I still think it’s a unique enough specimen to be well worth the praise it gets.
#8: Nilsson- Everybody’s Talkin’
If Steppenwolf captured and distilled the electrifying thrill of the open road on “Born to be Wild”, Harry Nilsson captured and distilled the comforting, nostalgic tedium of the American highway with his cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”. From the opening seconds, the rhythmic acoustic fingerpicking, the keening, trebly violin, and the brushed drumwork conjure up an expansive, windswept sonic landscape. It’s perfect driving music- specifically it’s perfect road-trip music, for car rides long enough that everything but the music and the endless, rolling countryside fades away. Lyrically, it feels like the precursor to groups like Modest Mouse and Wilco, who have similarly trawled the seams between post-industrial America and the rural landscapes it left behind. On a purely textual level, it’s not so overtly sociopolitical, focusing mainly on the narrator’s emotional isolation and his desire to escape to the simplicity of the seaside, but between the lines, the dichotomy between the spiritually draining urban sprawl and the freeing, almost transcendent natural world is clearly outlined. Nilsson’s plaintive vocals are the perfect vehicle for this, conveying all of the aching melancholy and none of the reject-modernity smugness that can sometimes crop up in songs like this. Overall, it’s just a tad lightweight, and the lack of a proper chorus makes it less indelible than it could be, but this sweeping number is still one of the most instantly affecting folk rock tunes of the late 60s.
#7: Creedence Clearwater Revival- Proud Mary
If 1969 belonged to anyone, it belonged to Creedence Clearwater Revival, who blasted out three full albums and notched five top-ten hits between January and December. Though my personal favorite CCR tune, the country-rock masterpiece “Lodi”, sadly failed to clear the top 40, John Fogerty and co.’s sundry other successes this year more than made up for it, not least “Proud Mary”, one of their most iconic songs and, I’d argue, one of their best. It perfectly exhibits the blue-collar, totally unpretentious approach to songcraft and lyricism that made CCR one of the most beloved bands in American rock. However, unlike the dozens of completely useless boogie-rock bands that would soon emerge in Creedence’s wake, Fogerty was actually an extremely clever songwriter, and had a lyrical voice that was instantly likeable: down-to-earth and approachable, yet sensitive and observant enough to make him seem like a guy worth listening to. Fogerty reportedly wrote this song shortly after being kicked out of the National Guard, which does a lot to help the lyrics about leaving the stability and tedium of the city for a carefree, simple life on the river ring so true. It feels like having a beer with a good friend who’s just been fired from their crappy day job, listening to them wonder about where life will take them next.
#6: The Isley Brothers- It’s Your Thing
For most of the 60s, The Isley Brothers were mostly known for being the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters behind such delightful pop-rock imperatives as “Twist and Shout” and the more succinctly-named “Shout!”. However, since their success at the start the decade waned, they had been quietly evolving into a sharp, muscular funk/soul combo, and following a mostly-unfruitful stint on Motown, they decided to return to their own T-Neck label and go full James Brown/Sly Stone for their next full-length. “It’s Your Thing” was the perfect re-introduction of the Isleys to the pop world; It precedes the phenomenon of “I’m back, bitch” singles like “Bad” or “Sexyback” by nearly two decades, but the term still feels rather appropriate. It’s an impressively-realized statement of purpose, and it also shows a sense of brevity that The Family Stone and especially James Brown always seemed to struggle with. Ronald Isley knew exactly what this song needed in order to work: a catchy, fun hook, a verse or two to spice things up, and a great groove to set it all to. That’s it- no extended vocal improvisations, no instrumental jamming, no long codas, not even a middle 8- don’t bore us, get to the chorus. It delivers all the funkiness and swagger of a tune like “Cold Sweat” in a trim, two-minute package, and even though it suffers a little from being such an early specimen of its genre, it’s still a fantastic example of what funk music has to offer when done right.
#5: Johnny Cash- A Boy Named Sue
The second appearance of children’s poet Shel Silverstein on these lists absolutely blows the vastly inferior “The Unicorn” out of the water (pun intended). For one, it’s just a much better story. There’s real pathos and a fleshed-out emotional arc for the protagonist here. At the beginning, we share in Sue’s humiliation at being so mercilessly mocked for the name his absentee father gave him. Then, we’re caught up in the confrontation between Sue and his father, the nasty bar brawl the two men engage in being sketched out with impressive economy. When we finally reach the climax, and Sue realizes that the name he’s spent his whole life feeling ashamed of is the reason why he’s built such a strong character, we realize it right along with him. And then there’s my favorite part: that hilariously human twist, where we expect Sue to come full circle by naming his own son Sue, but instead he bitterly grouches that he’ll name his son “Any damn thing but Sue, I still hate that name!”. After all, even once we come to accept the things we don’t like about ourselves, most of us are none too eager to pass those flaws on to our own kids! It also feels like a subtle acknowledgement that the whole story is a bit silly; I think the narrator would have probably been fine if he had been named something more traditional, and the whole “being bullied builds character” thing is a pretty flimsy excuse from the dad who, to be clear, is no less of a dirtbag for his explanation. The other component, of course, is Johnny Cash’s execution of the material, which is bang-on from start to finish. The talking blues format is a perfect fit for Silverstein’s meter, and Cash’s performance (Supposedly his first time ever actually performing the song- wow!) is practically Oscar-worthy. He gives voice to Sue’s resentment and rage, his fraught relationship with his father, and he mixes in just enough good humor to be sympathetic and loveable the whole way through. Though I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you Johnny Cash is great, “A Boy Named Sue” is still a wonderful showcase of a legendary performer firing on all cylinders.
#4: Tony Joe White- Polk Salad Annie
Given how these lists tend to turn into exercises in praising songs that have been ubiquitously beloved for ages, it’s always a nice change of pace to cover something a little less well-known. Now, John Fogerty never came off as phony or disingenuous to me, but one listen to Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” makes it crystal clear who of the two was the real country boy. White grew up on a cotton farm in rural Louisiana, and it definitely shows. “Polk Salad Annie” is unfiltered, down-n-dirty roots rock, from the chugging groove to White’s bluesy guitar pickin’ to the horns that give it the needed hint of NOLA attitude. The obvious standout here is White himself though: his gruff, grunting vocal delivery is both patently hilarious and effortlessly badass, and it’s the perfect voice for a story about the titular tough-as-nails hillbilly girl. Despite what everything about the song’s vibe would suggest, White doesn’t even really attempt to sexualize or objectify Polk Salad Annie here, it just sounds like he really wants us to know that she’s a total hardass who could probably beat the shit out of anyone, and I respect that. The actual lyricism here is surprisingly solid too- saying Annie “made the alligators look tame” is more specific and descriptive than almost any other lyric about a woman this year. A song about eating swamp weeds and stealing watermelons out of a truck patch is unconventional for the pop charts, to be sure, but it’s also undeniably a lot more flavorful and interesting than the umpteenth song about dancing or breakups or whatever, and every time I put it on it feels like a welcome change of pace.
#3: Marvin Gaye- I Heard It Through The Grapevine
By 1969, Marvin Gaye was firmly established as one of Motown’s fastest-rising superstars. He was reliably raking in top 40 hits, but he was yet to have a bona-fide chart-topper to his name. Fortunately, the higher-ups at Motown saw Gaye’s obvious commercial potential and decided to invest in his next single, bringing in longtime Temptations producer Norman Whitfield to take another crack at “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, which had already proven to be a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967. The result, Gaye’s first No. 1 single, hews much closer to The Miracles’ original than to Knight’s more gospel-influenced version, but takes the darker, meaner groove even further with a slightly slowed tempo. Gaye is more tense and confrontational than he’s ever been before here; while Smokey Robinson ably handled the original with his light, smooth falsetto, this is a song that benefits immensely from a rawer, more emotionally volatile performance. Gaye genuinely does sound like he’s “just about to lose his mind” here, in a way Robinson and Knight and even John Fogerty never quite did. The lyric, centering on an anguished confrontation with an unfaithful partner, doesn’t do anything too special by itself, but the presentation here brings both an intensity and a danceability that together prove to be a winning combination.
#2: The Beatles- Something
Since the Beatles’ inception, George Harrison’s voice in the band had always been restricted to one or two choice deep cuts per album, and perhaps a B-side here and there, but as the band’s artistic ambitions ballooned, so too did Harrison’s drive to create music of his own. By 1968, his contributions were easily standing toe to toe with those of McCartney and Lennon, but he was still as sidelined as ever, and if I may indulge in a bit of speculation here, I think this was the point Harrison realized that if he wanted his work to be recognized by his bandmates, he would need to ensure that anything he contributed was completely, 100% beyond reproach. For the lead single off their 1969 Abbey Road album, Harrison finally got his first hit single, and he could hardly have concocted a more stunning debut for the pop charts than “Something”. Musically, it’s a sentimental ballad in the style of early R&B powerhouses like Ray Charles, and Harrison pulls out all the stops with his guitar work, from the indelible ascending hook to the achingly beautiful solo. His bandmates are all on their A-game as well; Paul McCartney’s performance on bass and backing vocals is especially vital here. Conceptually, it’s a seamless union of the heart-on-sleeve romance of the Beatles’ early years and the more mature introspection of their later work. It’s a love song so gorgeously written and performed that even Frank Sinatra (a notoriously savage critic of rock music) was moved to publicly praise its brilliance and include it in his own repertoire. Indeed, “Something” transcends the 1960s in a way few love songs in the Beatles’ canon do; ‘transcendent’ is actually a very apt descriptor for this song in all respects. Much of its timelessness, I believe, lies in the spiritual nature of Harrison’s approach, in his understanding of love not as something to be explained or possessed, but something you must give yourself over to, something with power and sway beyond the quantitative realm. There are aspects of the experience of love that fall beyond the limits of language, and “Something” reaches towards those aspects as yearningly and artfully as any love song I’ve heard.
#1: Creedence Clearwater Revival- Bad Moon Rising
Usually my favorite song for a given year is something a little more emotionally resonant or hard-hitting (“Something” was only a hair’s breadth from beating this to the #1 spot), but hey, sometimes a song just has to be plain-old fantastically well-written to outstrip everything else the year had to offer. “Bad Moon Rising” is, as far as rootsy, no-frills rock music goes, basically without fault. John Fogerty’s vocals carry enough Southern grit to give the apocalyptic lyrics the appropriate gravitas, and they also manage to ring out wonderfully over the instrumentals, clear as a bell. The lead work here is all note-perfect; it’s so unobtrusive that you probably won’t even realize how memorable it all is until you’re humming along with every lick and fill after only a few listens. The rhythm section is workmanlike and sturdy- certainly not the most powerful groove out there, but exactly what the song calls for and not a pinch more. Most importantly , it’s one of the best examples of the dichotomy that made CCR so universally well-liked: Their songs were mostly about fairly serious topics, dealing with the trials and tribulations of the working class and, here specifically, anxiety over a future that looked increasingly bleak. Yet, at the same time, their music was so vibrant and melodious that they seldom came off as downers or killjoys. That uncanny ability to temper their socially conscious messages with a cheeky, scrappy sense of fun made them the perfect mouthpiece for the youth of the late ‘60s, and it’s helped their music feel just as vital today as it was half a century ago.