Fifty Years of Great Music: 100 More Essential Songs

100moresongsbannerAnyone who took a look at the Fifty Years of Great Music series from last year was probably at least marginally frustrated. Every time I chose a song or album widely-accepted as deserving of accolade, there was probably another one that left someone scratching their head (or outright shouting at the computer screen). And, of course, there were also all the worthy nominees that came up short, and probably merited inclusion despite my cold, hard judgment. It’s time to give some of the losers that might have deserved the honor a little love.

What follows are a hundred more songs from the last fifty years (twenty per decade) that have earned some measure of immortality. As usual, it’s an eclectic bunch covering almost all major pop music genres, with instantly recognizable chart hits, overlooked gems begging for a wider audience, and everything in between. It’s important to remember, however, that these are not necessarily among the next group of twenty that came up short on each of the previous Top 100’s, but rather a fairly randomly selected group of close calls, a handful of sadly underrated numbers that deserve a kinder reevaluation, and, in about three or four cases, ones that I just plum forgot about in my original assessment. They are not ranked in any way, but are simply listed chronologically according to their release date.

For anyone who missed out on the ten Fifty Years of Great Music lists (or need a refresher), you can find links to them below:

Top 100 Songs of the 1960s
Top 100 Albums of the 1960s
Top 100 Songs of the 1970s
Top 100 Albums of the 1970s
Top 100 Songs of the 1980s
Top 100 Albums of the 1980s
Top 100 Songs of the 1990s
Top 100 Albums of the 1990s
Top 100 Songs of the 2000s
Top 100 Albums of the 2000s

And for the benefit of the readers, I have included YouTube search query links so that you can relive the chosen tunes (or discover them for the first time ), as well as occasional applicable references to similar songs or albums that might have been discussed on this site in the past—notably, records that made the earlier Top 100 lists. Of course, feel free to offer your own two cents about this bunch and which ones still deserve some admiration. I feel that these hundred, however, while maybe not the absolute cream of the crop, are essential listening:

60onlythelonelyOnly the Lonely (Know How I Feel)
by Roy Orbison
from the Only the Lonely
1960 / Pop

Some themes are so universal that only the simplest lyrics (to the point of cliché) are needed. Roy Orbison doesn’t really need to say anything more than “Only the lonely/Know why/I cry.” The doo wop meets sleepy rockabilly melody is nothing particularly ecstatic, either—or melancholy, in a case like this. But three important ingredients lifts this one far above passable into the realm of extraordinary: the team of back-ups functioning as a meter hook as well as a Greek chorus of sorts in relation to the frontman, the plunging and sighing strings that were nearly impossible to find so well integrated in a pop song in 1960, and Orbison himself, who shifted his talents to an earnest, warbling croon that was even more appealing than Elvis himself when the King strove for aching sentiment. Very beautiful, remorselessly sad, but with a bittersweet ray of sunshine to really tug at the heartstrings.


60atlastAt Last
by Etta James
from At Last!
1961 / Soul

Etta James’ aromatic joy in the realization that, “At last, my love has come along,” is surprisingly controlled, as if jubilance and relief converged for a muted ache, tender resolve, and satisfaction so overwhelming that it almost approaches the stasis of malaise. I swear, you can actually hear her smile between the belts, but her body is almost put to sleep while her soul bursts. A jazzy shuffle underneath her keeps her heart skipping steadily along with that immense sense of contentment, while the sweeping orchestra runs the spectrum: soaring, swooping, spiking, gasping, whirling, dancing at will. It’s a flawless manifestation of what we don’t easily see in people: the nerves and tension bottled up in an otherwise almost suspiciously cool customer. The way the elements complement and even bolster each other is why James’ version of the beloved standard remains the best to this day. Imitation apparently doesn’t work, though—Beyoncé Knowles, who played James in the film Cadillac Records, performed a variation that evidently infuriated James to the point of threatening physical harm. I guess not all untamed emotion can be kept to a simmer.


60jumpinthelineJump in the Line (Shake, Senora)
by Harry Belafonte
from Jump Up Calypso
1961 / Calypso

Most of the time that people support the latest zippy slice of dreck to inexplicably climb the pop charts, they argue that it doesn’t need to be intellectually nutritious so long as it’s catchy and fun. It’s a fair defense, especially when you consider how many classic tunes from the halcyon days of rock and R&B radio are based around bare-boned ideas, feelings and hooks—dozens are even devoted just to some new dance craze. Where the defense comes up short is that a lot of the original so-called classics were actuallyfun. They captured a joie de vivre mentality (even the gimmicky ones) that’s altogether too forced, assembly-line and sub-moronic these days. Look at Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line,” a calypsonian standard revitalized by the biggest name the genre has ever known. It had a more commercial pop sound than traditional calypso, but walls of horns, congas, steelpans, a fluttering flute and a flinty Spanish guitar created so much rambunctious pleasure that only the staunchest of diehards could complain. When the latest manufactured pop star thrust into the spotlight leaves you cold, you can always count on this one to get you grinning and shaking.


by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones
from the Misirlou
1963 / Rock

Generations of young people (and maybe older ones) will forever associate Dick Dale’s revision of the Greek folk song “Misirlou” into an instrumental surf rock masterwork with its iconic appearance during the opening credits of Pulp Fiction. It’s easy to mistake its insertion as a testimony to how beach music briefly became cool again (anything attached to Quentin Tarantino during his explosion was), but let’s face it, Pulp Fiction became cooler because it featured “Misirlou.” On a bet (of all things), Dale decided to play the old standard using just one guitar string and then proceeding to speed up the melody to a breakneck velocity. In the end, the riff doesn’t strut or jump—it vibrates, buzzes, and flattens, sounding as if someone threw a beehive into the studio. Packed around that riff are yelps, fiery trumpets and ivory tickles that enhance the more strategic Cuban swing of the baseline melody. A lot of surf rock sounded sunny, friendly and feather light; Dick Dale’s beefed-up version made you wonder if all those guys hanging ten wanted to be leather jacket-sporting, switchblade-carrying greasers.


60dontworrybabyDon’t Worry Baby
by the Beach Boys
from Shut Down Volume 2
1964 / Pop

The melody and harmonies of “Don’t Worry Baby” are the closest audio equivalent of the blanket (er, blankey) that children cling to until it disintegrates. It’s so warm, fuzzy, cozy and reassuring that the issued 45 sleeve should have come with a prosthetic thumb sticking out that you could suck on it. And its theme is child-like even in its maturing blossom—the foolhardy but romantic notion that nothing can go wrong in the company of your best gal. Being the Beach Boys in the early 60s, the lyrics paint a familiar picture of brags and drags, but it’s still a universal feeling of puppy love (un)stable enough to suggest something bordering on a telepathic connection. It’s the comfort and reliability shared, too, but you’re too busy batting eyelashes to even notice. And even beyond the emotion, the gauzy hum of the music and singing creates a soft but wooly landscape to just melt inside. Brian Wilson admitted that “Don’t Worry Baby” was his own futile attempt to replicate the Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Preferring one over the other is perfectly fair, but there’s no denying that both belong in the same conversation of the finest pop songs ever recorded.


See also: “I Get Around” (#63)

60peoplegetreadyPeople Get Ready
by the Impressions
from People Get Ready
1965 / Soul

“People get ready, there's a train a comin'/You don't need no baggage, you just get on board/All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'/Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.” Equally consumed with the optimism one seeks at life’s end or a journey to a seemingly impossible dream, the Impressions’ most timely tune reflected gospel-driven spirituality directly and the social upheaval of the Civil Rights movement implicitly—Chicago soul maven Curtis Mayfield even wrote the song just before a Martin Luther King march. The velvet voices match the quiet surge and uplift of the gorgeous melody (bolstered by some of the airiest strings ever recorded), and Curtis Mayfield’s bluesy guitar during the break is so fluidly integrated that you hardly even notice how moved you become. Most hit records achieve their popularity because they grab you with obvious hooks that can’t avoid confrontation. This one gets into your blood slowly and stays there forever.


by Nina Simone
from Pastel Blues
1965 / Jazz

A traditional religious song gets a gospel-influenced revamp by Nina Simone in the faux-improvisational spirit of a jazz masterwork. “Sinnerman” prepares you for its message by the title but nothing prepares you for its urgent, scorching presence. Swollen apocalyptic imagery mixes with the unpitying judgment of a wrath of fire, Old Testament God while the drums and pianos race head on to a salvation that will never come. When the arrangement spills out into a segment of dusty handclaps, the listener finally grasps for a chance to take a gulp of air, but a lone piano figure emerges and suddenly the frantic, no-way-out mood leaves one breathless all over again. Simone’s wicked sin narrator begs relentlessly, “Don’t you see me prayin’?” “But the Lord said, ‘Go to the devil’,” is the answer. So much for, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” 
Quite simply one of the best piano songs to learn for its tone and lovely lyrics.


60ivebeenlovingyouI’ve Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now)
by Otis Redding
from Otis Blue
1965 / Soul

The Stax house band plays an important role on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now),” with the steady beat ready to engorge at the crescendos and ascending brass that lurch to life at the key moments, but mostly the melody remains modest and subtle. In most cases, you could describe it as being unobtrusive, but with Otis Redding’s sweat-mottled, lung-wrenching vocal performance, it’s better to leave it at being complementary. Redding was far too assured and professional to leap into a melodramatic fit, so while inhibition keeps him from going from hungry to ludicrous, his way of treating the vocals as a blitzkrieg from his own clenched body imbues it with a humanist passion—notice how the arc in his delivery makes the “I” and “you” almost secondary to the insistent cry of “love.” You can only start with “smoldering” and go from there.


See also: Otis Blue (#34), “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” (#6)

60eightmileshighEight Miles High
by the Byrds
from Fifth Dimension
1966 / Rock

Better known for folk rock hits like “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Byrds went psychedelic at the end of 1965 and released “Eight Miles High” the following year. It would be the last song that Gene Clark would write with the band; among the reasons for departing was an extreme fear of flying during their widespread tours (ironic for a Byrd, eh?). Further irony is compiled by the fact that “Eight Miles High,” despite (easy) connotations to drug use, was written about air travel. Easy inspirations can be checked off for the Beatles and psychotropic drugs (and the Beatles experimenting with psychotropic drugs, really), but also the free jazz movement, emphasized by the intro passage. Elliptical phrases are par for the course (including David Crosby’s suggestion of “Rain grey town known for its sound”), as is Roger McGuinn’s trademark folk rock jangle technique, but this one took the Byrds to a whole new level. In fact, it’s probably their all-time best song.


See also: Fifth Dimension (#73)

60imnotlikeeverybodyelseI’m Not Like Everybody Else
by the Kinks
from the Sunny Afternoon
1966 / Rock

A defiant anti-conformist decree if there ever was one, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” is even more proto-punk than the sex-and-rust-scarred riff that ignited “You Really Got Me Now.” Even when Dave Davies promises his girl that, “I love you true, do anything that you want me to,” he then asserts that he will not compromise his identity in order to placate tradition. The band had more complex and inventive arrangements ahead of them, but the simmer-to-boil impact of the pre-chorus borders on sublime. Davies even makes a sinister pulse sound magnetic; it’s hard to tell if he stresses that, “I’m not like everybody else,” with a sneer or a smirk. Originally issued as a B-side to “Sunny Afternoon,” the track had a life of its own as it popped up on the charts, was featured frequently in Kinks and Ray Davies set lists, has been covered by dozens of artists, and even showed up in an IBM ad campaign—who figured so many would conform to nonconformity?


See also: “Sunny Afternoon” (#46)

 60getreadyGet Ready
by the Temptations
from Gettin’ Ready
1966 / Soul

The last song that Smokey Robinson wrote and produced for the Temptations, “Get Ready” didn’t make a tremendous splash upon its release; it barely reached the Top 30 on the pop charts and the Rare Earth cover version four years later is frequently considered the more iconic and recognizable version (even reaching #4 in the US). In becoming one of the great anthems for bar-hopping singles everywhere, Eddie Kendricks even took the lead vocal, giving a stomping, rowdy production a sweet center—he even makes, “Look out, baby, ‘cause here I come,” sound all puppy dog. As was typical of Motown’s most iconic tunes, the voices, performance and hooks are the central appeal (even for a confection like this one, saying “fee fi fo fum” and “twiddley dee, twiddley dum” is awfully silly), with special notice to Benny Benjamin’s pounding rhythm and tom rolls.


See also: “My Girl” (#36)

60makingtimeMaking Time
by the Creation
from the Making Time
1966 / Rock

During their early mod-rock phase, the Who freely copped the Kinks’ signature jerky guitar style, so the Creation borrowing the technique for their debut single “Making Time” ought to qualify as even more shameless secondhand theft—the bridge even features some craggy feedback bends that sound lifted from “My Generation.” The theft charges might even be warranted if it wasn’t so winsome and effective. Follow-up single “Painter Man” charted higher, but no song is as synonymous with the tragically overlooked band as their first. If the recognizable chord progression isn’t enough for its immortality, the clipped phrases merging to verbal presentations far more blunt but oblique than the era typically yielded should seal the deal: “Tellin’ lies/Closin’ your eyes/Makin’ more excuses/Pullin’ the wool/Actin’ the fool/People have their uses.”


See also: The Who’s “My Generation” (#2)

60ninesixtears96 Tears
by ? & the Mysterians
from 96 Tears
1966 / Rock

Most notable for the tune that ranks pretty high on the list of the songs that birthed punk rock is the fact that a psychedelic Farfisa organ moans front and center instead of a chunky guitar and that the couplet, “Too many teardrops for one heart to be cryin’/Too many teardrops for one heart to carry on,” sounds practically wilted and mopey for punk’s more in-your-face dictations (wait, did this tune also help spawn emo?). Comprised of Mexican Americans living in Michigan, ? and the Mysterians remain something of an oddity considering that no one seems to know for sure if Question Mark was in fact Rudy Martinez and that their short tenure consisted primarily of mostly forgettable rock and R&B covers. But the flashes of promise heard on tunes like “Smokes” and “I Need Somebody” required no nourishment on their definitive release—“96 Tears” will always be one of the first songs that everyone thinks of when describing garage rock.


60shesarainbowShe’s a Rainbow
by the Rolling Stones
from Their Satanic Majesties Request
1967 / Pop

There were plenty of poor choices made on Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Rolling Stones’ utterly transparent attempt to match the pop-as-art strides taken by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but there was at least one laudatory moment of genius—the ambitious arrangement, melody and lyrical imagery of “She’s a Rainbow.” With Brian Jones playing the Mellotron synthesizer, Nicky Hopkins coming on board for the effervescent piano melody, John Paul Jones carrying out the string arrangement, and Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards chirping their “oo-la-la”s like blissfully sick children, it’s certainly one of the more unusual hits in the Stones canon—even today, many people treat it as a curious novelty surrounded by their more muscular British blues offerings. And even though that difference is one of the key strokes in its memorability, what makes “Rainbow” truly stand out is the beautiful melody and harmonies laid over the typically robust backbeat of one of rock’s most iconic bands.


See also: “Paint It Black” (#26)

60hereshecomesnowHere She Comes Now
by the Velvet Underground
from White Light/White Heat
1968 / Rock

An anomaly amidst all of the arty dissonance and smeared experimentalism of the Velvet Underground’s sophomore effort, “Here She Comes Now” is brief, small, subtle but irrefutably hypnotic in its simplicity. Lou Reed’s voice is often remembered best for its dry bluntness, but there’s a gentle urgency to the disaffected lilt which somehow keeps it keeled even between clinical and absorbed; fitting, considering how, despite its ambiguity, the words are clearly presented as query without desperation or promise. The gentle guitar figure, shuddering percussion, and John Cale’s subtle viola entries are treated kindly by the faint tape hiss. That sort of firmament is difficult to find in pop music that doesn’t diligently strive for the lo-fi demo-aura, but then again, part of the band’s legacy is inspiring that lo-fi demo-aura devotion.


See also: White Light/White Heat (#37), “Pale Blue Eyes” (#10)

60everybodystalkinEverybody’s Talkin’
by Harry Nilsson
from Aerial Ballet
1968 / Folk

Some songs are so unbreakably connected with a film or television program that divorce is nearly impossible. I can’t listen to Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” without seeing Joe Buck strolling New York’s crowded thoroughfare (or, ahem, Zapp Brannigan). But then, even as Midnight Cowboy progresses and the song’s motif has long vanished, it still infiltrates my thoughts. A pitch perfect ode to (or warning against) desolation and distress, the warm guitar lines, lovely orchestration, and rich vocals make it sound optimistic, though the best you can scavenge on the least ironic days is some hint of the bittersweet. We’ve all felt, “Everybody's talking at me/I don't hear a word they're saying/Only the echoes of my mind,” but Nilsson was reportedly living that grief at the time of the recording. So what’s more alarming: that he makes it sound so upbeat or that someone else fortuitously “wrote it for him”?


60wichitalinemanWichita Lineman
by Glen Campbell
from Wichita Lineman
1968 / Country

An existential love song with slick production, tremolo guitar and sad and yearning strings, “Wichita Lineman” hardly seems on the surface to be a quintessential country song, until you reach under and isolate Glen Campbell’s voice and shape it up to be the kind of blue collar anthem that the genre is known for. Written by Jimmy Webb, the song’s spare address to loneliness discovers a good cross-section of workingman specifics and ardent universality, treating that solitary lineman as a symbol for anyone separated by time and distance from a loved one. Most miraculous, though, is how Campbell and producer Al DeLory incorporate musical motifs representing sounds a lineman would hear (a Hammond organ acting as an S.O.S., the violins fading out and in like heterodyne signals, etc.) into a rich, highly melodic tapestry.


60dearprudenceDear Prudence
by the Beatles
from The Beatles [The White Album]
1968 / Rock

Not that any Beatles song could ever be fairly described as being “underrated,” but “Dear Prudence” might be the one among their absolute best closest to that label. I prefer it to more celebrated Beatles tunes like “In My Life” or “Hey Jude,” which, of course, is kind of like saying I prefer Revolver to Abbey Road—couldn’t live without both. But there’s a refreshing simplicity and directness to the songwriting that could almost be mistaken as John Lennon parodying Paul McCartney (“Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?/Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day,” certainly rings of the childlike whimsy that Mac enjoyed peddling). But then, so, too, was, “The sun is up/The sky is blue/It’s beautiful/And so are you,” which manages to accelerate to near-monumental during the descending bass, whacked-out drums and scorching guitar majesty of its climax. Both John and son Julian considered it to be one of the Beatles’ all-time best, so clearly I’m not alone.


See also: The Beatles [The White Album] (#1), “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (#5)

60iwanttotakeyouhigherI Want to Take You Higher
by Sly & the Family Stone
from Stand!
1969 / Funk

Among us “elitist music snobs,” songs of gravity, meaning and importance tend to get more accolades than anthems simply devoted to having a good time. Nevertheless, I have no difficulty in saying without hesitation that the greatest single recording from Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand! was “I Want to Take You Higher,” a stark contrast to the heavier themes and messages that filled out the LP. A miasmic slice of early funk rock that capitalized on the broadest tendencies of soul, R&B and gospel, “Higher” doesn’t linger in the shadows of the album’s other pillars, though. This is a tune dedicated to the sheer love of music itself, a rousing warts-and-all epic jammed with horn stabs, keyboard gurgles, a thumping rhythm section, and every voice in the deep, multi-racial group contributing to the delirious orgy of combustible energy. Celebrating the personal and cultural impact of pop? Oh. No wonder us “elite music snobs” love it.


See also: Stand! (#17), “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” (#21)

60jetaimemoinonplusJe t’aime… moi non plus
by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
from Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg

1969 / Pop

Looking at Serge Gainsbourg, you’d probably have to be reaching to understand how he was a symbol of sexuality, but listening to his songs, you’d be reaching to try and say otherwise. The connotation between Frenchman and seduction might as well have been forged right here. After Gainsbourg courted controversy with the song “Les Sucettes” (“Lollipops”) by having a teenage girl sing about lollipops as a blatant innuendo for oral sex, he released “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (“I love you… me neither”), with lines that translate as, “I go and come in between your loins,” and featuring Jane Birkin groaning, cooing and sighing in ways that couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted—as for that rumor that the recording was an authentic lovemaking session, Gainsbourg remarked, “Thank goodness it wasn't, otherwise I hope it would have been [an LP].” The salaciousness of it all (and Birkin’s, er, inspiring performance) is just one piece to its allure, though, as Gainsbourg is rightfully considered one of the world’s most influential musicians. Who else saw so much expressiveness amidst a languid posture with its fluid keys and flighty strings? Or better, is it an anti-love song or an anti-sex song? Hell, could be both.


See also: Histoire de Melody Nelson (#84)




Matt Medlock


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