Fifty Years of Great Music: Yet Another 100 Essential Songs


Good news or bad news, depending on how you stand: this will almost certainly be the last song list for the Fifty Years of Great Music feature (never say never, but not likely). Which also means that in another month or so I’ll be rolling out the last list of albums for the series, leaving just one more visit to those five decades to go after that; something different, I assure you (though it doesn’t take a soothsayer to accurately predict what it’s going to be). But for now, let’s live in the present and take a look at another hundred terrific songs.  

I made a conscious effort to reach out in a few new directions this time, seeking out some groups and sounds that I’d previously withheld (however slight) deserving love; it is therefore important for me to emphasize that while I fully endorse all of these tracks’ worth, there are still plenty of likely more deserving tunes that I never got around to. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t make time for every little odd and end, but I felt compelled to make time for some material that I and people of my ilk frequently overlook or instinctually disparage. To those familiar with previous lists, most of these shouldn’t be too alarming, and there’s plenty of repeat customers to go around alongside the usual suspects. But I predict that a few of these will have you scratching your head, especially when you arrive at that tricky decade of the 1980s.

Anyone who needs a refresher can find links to previous entries in the Fifty Years of Great Music series below:

Same as the last outing, there are twenty songs per decade, they are listed in chronological order instead of ranked, and I’ve attempted some modest modicum of eclecticism to cover a wide array of genres and locate smash hit singles, undersung underground gems, and everything in between. I have also included links to YouTube search queries for most of the songs so you can listen at home as well as select applicable references to similar songs or albums that have been discussed previously on the site. Enjoy!

by Del Shannon
from the Runaway
1961 / Rock

Today, rock n’ roll and R&B have such a wide berth that their similarities can hardly be spotted, but when “Runaway” jumped to the top spot on the Billboard charts (and to #3 on the R&B charts), you could hardly even spot a difference. The singer pictured on the 45rpm sleeve couldn’t have looked “whiter” if they airbrushed him to a pasty Conan O’Brien complexion, but the singer who belts out, “I'm a-walkin' in the rain, tears are fallin' and I feel the pain,” also has genuine, gritty soul. And neither the universal breakup truths nor Shannon’s croak is even the most recognizable element in the song; that feat belongs to co-writer Max Crook’s unforgettable “Musitron” solo, an electric keyboard he invented/modified himself. How timeless is the song? In addition to its stone-chiseled status in rock and R&B, it’s also been covered in blues, country, Latin and punk forms.


by Sam Cooke
from the Cupid
1961 / Soul

Instead of taking a deep breath and making a move, Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” narrator sheepishly begs the titular putto archer to fire an arrow of amore into the heart of the girl who finds him utterly transparent. So he’s not exactly the most noble or courageous of heroes, but strutting peacocks can get a little boring, and there’s always room for a wallflower anthem or two on the radio (the shyness might not be Morrissey-esque vulgar, but it’s damn well criminal). For the lonely heart crowd, somewhat rapturous as we/they seek recovery from the musical aficionados that enliven us, though resolution remains beyond our/his grasp. For Cooke’s canon, rather natural—airy in the instrumental accompaniment and the falsetto both—but undeniably engaging, especially the chord changes that act as the aural equivalent of throat-closed aching. But maybe next time he should seek out a wingman instead of a winged god.


See also: “A Change Is Gonna Come” (#17)

60greenonionsGreen Onions
by Booker T. & the M.G.s
from Green Onions

1962 / Soul

Although the song title “Green Onions” isn’t the most familiar of this day, there might not be a rhythm & blues groove as instantly recognizable as this one. Cream, Canned Heat, Wilson Pickett, the Rascals, and dozens of Stax/Motown stars started from here and saw what else they could do with it. Seemingly everyone wanted a keyboard sound like Booker’s Hammond organ and Steve Cropper’s scratchy Telecaster licks would forever exemplify blues rock. “Onions” must still be considered a triumph for back-up bands everywhere, as Booker T. & the M.G.s were the Stax house band, doing the critical but oft-unsung instrumental work for the vocal superstars. Its enduring testament can also be attributed to its chart performance where it landed at the #1 spot on the soul charts for four non-consecutive weeks, a feat never replicated (it also hit #7 in the UK…nearly twenty years after its original release!). The seemingly arbitrary title is actually a reference to the name of a cat living at the studio; the way the animal walked even inspired the svelte, funky riff.


60iwantholdhandI Want to Hold Your Hand
by the Beatles
from the I Want to Hold Your Hand
1963 / Pop

For those of us born well after the Beatles recorded their last song together, it was common to jump around through their catalog, frequently backwards. We knew the studio genius of their bitter days, their drug-fueled sonic and lyrical experiments, the days of strife that affords art both fortuitously accidental and deceptively harmonic. And as such, we frequently regard the early Beatles records with a quaint sunniness—at worst, a point in time when they were still fixed on rock n’ roll trends and making songs that were bubbly and fun instead of deeply rewarding. But then there’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Released at the height of Beatlemania, it’s the song that’s always remembered as being the Fab Four’s breakthrough #1 in the States (and staying at the top for seven weeks). With its cheery, undemanding lyrics and bouncy melody, its melody seems deceptively simple; “seems” because of how simple and fledgling the riffs and claps seem today, but at the time, the chord changes were, as Bob Dylan declared, “outrageous.” Even after overplay familiarity sets in and a firm knowledge of the bewildering avenues the Beatles would soon explore afterwards is fully intact, it still ranks among their finest.


See also: Please Please Me (#83), A Hard Day’s Night

60wheredidourlovegoWhere Did Our Love Go
by the Supremes
from Where Did Our Love Go

1964 / Soul

“Where Did Our Love Go” became the first of a dozen #1 hits for the Supremes, a time when Motown was losing patience with their thus-far commercially underwhelming vocal trio and before Diana Ross’ diva behavior became the stuff of legend. Hearing it today, it comes as something of a surprise how subtle and low key it remains throughout—where most other soul/R&B acts showed off the power of their lungs and made emotion synonymous with melodrama, the Supremes stayed under the keel and yearned with smooth and artful precision. The Holland-Dozier-Holland arrangement is equally precise; even the sax solo sounds pop-programmed as it gets squared-off to a curt fourteen seconds. Being familiar with the Four Tops’ “Cant Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” first, I was also taken aback by how similar the melodic progressions are (substitute the vocals/lyrics and they’re damn near the exact same song); equally alarming was how the Supremes made more of that sweet opportunity than arguably the best of all the 60s vocal groups.


See also: “Can’t Hurry Love” (#79)

60everybodyneedssomebodyEverybody Needs Somebody to Love
by Solomon Burke
from the Everybody Needs Somebody to Love
1964 / Soul

It’s hardly even a song. No traditional verses or choruses, it just unravels up and down with various conversational sermonizing bits and soulful howls extolling that need for love. Fittingly, Solomon Burke sounds like a gospel preacher throughout, urging from the pulpit for the congregation to rise and celebrate communal bonds of intimacy with enthusiastic, persuasive support from the “choir.” The vigorous recording and subject matter both insisted on the creation of a new soul standard, and benefited the careers of Wilson Pickett and the Rolling Stones (to say nothing for the Blues Brothers). But by keeping away from the pop-crossover styles adopted by fellow modern soul pioneers like Sam, Aretha and Otis, Burke ludicrously never even had a Top 20 hit (this one, perhaps second only to “Cry to Me” as being his most recognizable, topped out at only #58!); luckily, time has been more forgiving for this unusual but utterly indelible number. Throwing in insult to that injury, Burke later showed up his (often) name-only contemporaries by recording one of the stronger R&B records of the last twenty or so years (2002’s Don’t Give Up on Me).


60heartfullofsoulHeart Full of Soul
by the Yardbirds
from the Heart Full of Soul
1965 / Rock

The Yardbirds were less a real band than a rotating cavalcade of blues and rock musicians making a name for themselves. They never had a distinct voice, borrowed heavily from the pioneers and revolutionaries, could hardly keep a lineup intact for more than a year (even during their reunion phase), and never even released a truly worthwhile LP (Having a Rave Up is pretty good, but it was a singles/US track mash-up, and Roger the Engineer works better as influence than experience). Oh, and they eventually morphed into some band called Led Zeppelin. It was such a mess that, while Jeff Beck performs on “Heart Full of Soul,” it was Eric Clapton pictured on the single sleeve. Their legacy (besides being the springboard for so much raw talent) is primarily cemented on a series of unforgettable songs, including not only “Soul,” but also “For Your Love,” “Shapes of Things,” “Over Under Sideways Down” and one of the definitive versions of “Train Kept a-Rollin’.” The slight edge for their best goes to “Soul” for Beck’s sitar-like fuzz box guitar riff and Keith Relf’s vocals that stagger from garage gritty to ethereal exotic on a dime.


60tracksofmytearsThe Tracks of My Tears
by the Miracles
from Going to a Go-Go

1965 / Soul

A song so good that even the usually stone-hearted Berry Gordy declared it a masterwork, “The Tracks of My Tears” is the quintessential Miracles tune. The opening alone is pop perfection: a soft, twinging guitar figure laying down the tablecloth for a feast of rattling drums and doop-doops, before Smokey Robinson takes his place at the head of the table to deliver one of his inimitable vocalizations. The arrangement bakes under a gooey haze, but each piece can be etched out with crystal clarity, and the swell that rushes overhead each time Robinson belts, “So take a good look at my face,” gives it an exultant masquerade that ought to be lacking in a tune that sobs so earnestly. For writing this song, Robinson, Marv Tarplin and Pete Moore even won “The Award of Merit” from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers)—consolation, I suppose, for Tarplin and Moore after absurdly not being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Smokey.


60sevenandsevenis7 and 7 Is
by Love
from Da Capo

1966 / Rock

Among the great proto-punk garage rockers, “7 and 7 Is” rarely gets due respect even though it not only anticipated the Stooges and MC5 but also gave the late-60s psychedelic movement a kick in the pants (a movement in which Love was at the forefront). The frustration burning out of Arthur Lee is palpable and the brain-blending, surreal imagery (“If I don’t start crying it’s because that I have got no eyes/My father’s in the fireplace and my dog lies hypnotized”) practically bleeds LSD. But the phrases are also metaphorically sound and the reverb whammies are straight out of acid rock’s handbook. So deadheads and dead-enders can both get down to this, huh? There’s not a lot of peace in store for the listener, not even from the relaxed, blues-based coda that drifts us out. After all, anything would sound peaceful after the equipment-crash that made the atom bomb detonation sound that climaxed all of that pent-up aggravation. Amusing triviality: “7 and 7 Is”’s B-side was the equation’s answer: “No. Fourteen.”


See also: Da Capo (#43), Forever Changes (#14)

60seasonofwitchSeason of the Witch
by Donovan
from Sunshine Superman

1966 / Folk

Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” was used memorably (and effectively) in the soundtrack for David Fincher’s Zodiac, but another Donovan song actually fits the obsessive, paranoid tone of the story backdrop even better—“Season of the Witch.” One of the three or four most quintessential psych-folk records of its or any era, “Season of the Witch” helped launch the West Coast “flower power” club sound (despite coming from a British folk balladeer more synonymous with Woody Guthrie than Jefferson Airplane). Tellingly, its strongest asset and influence was marked by its suspicious menace, eschewed primarily by the likes of the Grateful Dead, and laid the tracks for darker acid rock groups like the Doors. “When I look over my shoulder,” he molders, “What do you think I see? Some other cat looking over his shoulder at me. And he’s strange, sure, he’s strange.” The lyrical sensations and the simmering broil implementation of the harpsichord into the jazz-like conga rhythm is enough to convert even hardened listeners into agoraphobiacs.


60venusinfursVenus in Furs
by the Velvet Underground
from The Velvet Underground & Nico

1967 / Rock

It may unspool, float and hum like decadent, stuffy privilege, but even more than that, “Venus in Furs” is the muffled sound of closed-door debauchery, highly opiated and Kubrick-ian. Those doors are closed to the outside world, but the den of sin within is large and spacious, though stunted with a languorous, druggy haze of smoke and stale sweat. And sheltered from that enclosed solarium of nudes inclined on leather upholstery and orgy-stained satin pits are the surrounding dark closets where whispers of, “Severin, down on your bended knee. Taste the whip, in love not given lightly. Taste the whip, now plead for me,” ring of ecstasy instead of terror. Based on the same-named Leopold von Sacher-Masoch tale of bondage, submission, sadomasochism and “suprasensuality,” the hypnotic fascination with this seedy underbelly simply serves as anchor for its portrait of impossibility for opposite sex lovers to co-exist as companions instead of master/slave castes. And overwhelming something even as memorably heady as all of that? The reedy shriek of John Cale’s viola—cacophony as natural as the ebb and flow of one’s own bloodline.


See also: The Velvet Underground & Nico (#11), “I’m Waiting for the Man” (#78)

60manicdepressionManic Depression
by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
from Are You Experienced

1967 / Rock

It’s been whispered—an urban legend, if you will—that somebody once snatched up the best drugs the Monterey Pop crowd could offer, fed it to Jimi with wanton disregard for the consequences, stuffed the gypsy into a trashcan on top of that grouchy green monster, passed him a guitar and microphone, and then hurled the can down a craggy mountainside. The resulting recording became the demo for “Manic Depression.” It’s really less chaotic than one would expect from such a violent, clanging environment—the meter is actually that of a waltz, believe it or not—and that music, sweet music, is shaped like a flesh n’ blood goddess (Hendrix about the song: “[It’s] a story about a cat wishing he could make love to music instead of the same old everyday woman”). When the demo was handed in, drummer Mitch Mitchell turned it into an expressionistic showcase for pounding every damn thing in sight (hell, Keef rarely made it look so insane-cool). Okay, maybe the trashcan myth isn’t exactly based on fact (or even widespread rumor), but admit it: that origin sounds so spot on you want to whisper it to everyone you know right now.


See also: Are You Experienced (#3), “Purple Haze” (#37)

60heroesandvillainsHeroes and Villains
by the Beach Boys
from Smiley Smile

1967 / Pop

Smiley Smile is far too broken, scattershot and varied to be a great album, but it’s still one that everyone should listen to at least once just to witness the ashes of its agony of defeat. Amidst its chaotic mess, though, Brian Wilson did manage to slap together two undeniable pop masterpieces—the waxwork classic “Good Vibrations” (composed before the sessions even began) and the lesser-loved but no less lovely “Heroes and Villains.” Both seem initially slapdash and fragmented, jigsaws that can only be appreciated from a distance—suites typically moved in more ordinary fashion than these compositions—but they both had the arresting ability to be unpredictable even after being familiarized. The Beach Boys’ arguably unparalleled talent for implementing, building and sustaining harmonies are on hand, of course, but it’s the collaboration between Wilson and Van Dyke Parks—ambition meeting pretentiousness, sunny artifice risen to levels utterly engaging—that elevates it beyond the flippant platitudes of its optimism mired in reflective melancholy. As treated both in that famed little sandbox and in the overwhelmed studio rotation, simply sublime.


See also: “Good Vibrations” (#35), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (#20)

60iamthewalrusI Am the Walrus
by the Beatles
from Magical Mystery Tour

1967 / Rock

Sorry, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but this is the Beatles song that feels most like trippin’ hard on LSD…um, ahem, or so I’ve heard. Loosely inspired by a Lewis Carroll poem (and why not?), some of the surreal verses were even written by John Lennon during various acid trips. Making sense of “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” is feasible though unpleasant; figuring out the next line about “crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess boy, you been a naughty girl” not so much. An elementary penguin is probably a nun, and a semolina pilchard doesn’t sound all too appetizing to me, but who was the walrus again? Must be John, for it be he who doth protest it. And then in “Glass Onion,” John wags his finger at us for such thinking and nudges in Paul’s direction. Neither one was the eggman, though. But now I’ve just lost track of what I was thinking. Wait, what was I thinking? Or was I thinking? John detested that analysis stuff anyhow and putting it all together results in more cracks than the shells broken over one of Eric Burdon’s boudoir breakfast babes. But did you hear that Paul was dead? Poor guy.


See also: “A Day in the Life” (#33), “Tomorrow Never Knows” (#65)

60monymonyMony Mony
by Tommy James & the Shondells
from Mony Mony

1968 / Rock

Second only to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” as the pop song requiring handclap participation from the audience, “Mony Mony” was released right in the middle of the Tommy James & the Shondells run during the mid-to-late-60s, which produced seven Top 10 hits (including a pair of number ones). This one only reached #3, but thanks in no small part to a memorable cover from Billy Idol more than a decade later, has become arguably their most iconic. Despite James’ insistence that they were psychedelic/garage rockers, they also flirted with the burgeoning bubblegum pop sound (to his repugnance, naturally). Even though “Mony Mony” undeniably fits the mold, it’s performed with the same sort of sloppy, raucous enthusiasm that made hits out of fellow shout-along pop gems like “Hang on Sloopy,” “Woolly Bully,” “Louie, Louie,” and many more. It means as little as any of those, too: its rallying cry was inspired haphazardly by James seeing the large sign on the Mutual of New York Building. But what did meaning matter to bubblegum? Er, sorry, Tommy; I meant garage rock.


See also: The Kingsmen's “Louie, Louie” (#81)

60jumpinjackflashJumpin’ Jack Flash
by the Rolling Stones
from the Jumpin’ Jack Flash
1968 / Rock

After an uneven dalliance with psychedelic music that didn’t mesh with their strengths as down n’ dirty blues rockers, the Rolling Stones jumped back into contention for world’s greatest rock band with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Built out of bloozy swagger, greasy attitude and frothing gasoline, it was a throwback to the tightly-wound riff rock they had already perfected three years prior with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The nasty groove and chord progressions even echoed of that classic, but the guitar tuning and function set up some of the Stones’ next series of great riffs and melodies from Beggars Banquet all the way through to their last great LP, Exile on Main St. (their four best albums, all in a row). But as an uptempo knockdown dragout blast, “Jack”’s at least as good as “Brown Sugar,” and at least in “Satisfaction”’s conversation—if overfamiliarity enters the equation, another equal. But speaking of familiarity, this one’s been performed by the venerable rockers more than any other. And it’s still not stale, eh? Still, it’ll be easier for me to get sick of it than to not picture Scorsese panning across a bar counter towards Harvey Keitel.


See also: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (#62), “Brown Sugar” (#84)

60aminhameninaA Minha Menina
by Os Mutantes
from Os Mutantes

1968 / Rock

The fuzzy guitar treble might make you think there’s a slant at play, maybe a sinister undercurrent or a tangled snarl, but that fuzz might as well be confectioner sugar ‘cause “A Minha Menina” is as charming and blithe as pop music gets. The introductory verse translates roughly as thus: “She’s my girl. I’m her guy. She’s my love. And I’m all her love.” Some business involving silver moons, blossoming roses, beautiful days and golden suns follow. Of course, since Os Mutantes (The Mutants) were Brazilian, they sing in Portuguese, so if you’re not fluent or don’t have a translation available, you might think the incomprehensible words are secretly misleading or subversive. But how could anyone find anything corrupt amidst that sparkling Tropicalia melody, fresh off the beach and straight into your sweetly naïve heart? There’s also some doo wop and scat in there for good measure. The band and their debut album rightly gets heralded as one of the best psychedelic rock records of its time (regardless of language/origin), but it’s this breezy, playful gem that I fondly remember best.


60boxerThe Boxer
by Simon and Garfunkel
from Bridge Over Troubled Water

1969 / Folk

In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains

As direct as the frustration and grief that life piles up on each of our doorsteps, as elusive to the unrestrained concrete as Dylan at his lyrical best. Gliding with serpentine fluidity, it features one of S&G’s greatest melodies, too. Though I prefer the warm echo and harmonies of “The Sounds of Silence,” “The Boxer” may very well be the duo’s finest composition.


See also: “Sounds of Silence” (#51), Bookends

60suspiciousmindsSuspicious Minds
by Elvis Presley
from the Suspicious Minds
1969 / Soul

In less than three years at the beginning of his career, Elvis Presley released eleven singles that went to #1. By 1968, Elvis was so mired in troubles and underperforming records that he needed a comeback special just to keep himself relevant—and it worked. Having such a surge only added to the man’s legend. Shortly after regaining the spotlight, the King released his eighteenth and final chart-topper, “Suspicious Minds,” which might not be as instantly iconic as, say, “Don’t Be Cruel” or “All Shook Up,” but production-wise, might be his most unforgettable. The troubling subject matter—infidelity unforgotten that wreaks havoc on a relationship’s trust while trying to soldier on—gains a poignant treatment from producer Chips Moman, with an ascending refrain figure that ratchets the intensity of its all-too-common plea. The country-rockabilly riff that draws in the listener gets overloaded by teary strings and distressing horns and, alongside backup singer Donna Jean Godchaux, Elvis converts Mark James’ original flop into a Memphis soul classic.


See also: “A Little Less Conversation” (#72)

60iwantyoubackI Want You Back
by the Jackson 5
from Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5

1969 / Soul

To the best of my knowledge (and without doing much active pursuit, that knowledge carries fairly large limitations), the Jackson 5 is the only boy band you should definitely hear before you die—my apologies, Hanson fans. As far as consistency was concerned, they were nothing to write home about; as far as inspiration was concerned, slightly better; innovation?—you’re getting warmer. Being hitmakers, though, is where they excelled, none finer than their very first, “I Want You Back.” The chord progression during the bubblegum soul chorus is rightly hailed as a surprising, magnificent masterstroke, and even though the notion of an eleven-year-old Indiana kid singing about the regrets of ending a romantic relationship is more than a bit unconventional (if not altogether disconcerting), the enthusiasm that young Michael Jackson brings to his boyish yelp of a performance made a star practically overnight. Released at the tail end of the 60s, “I Want You Back” stamped an exclamation point on the decade for Hitsville U.S.A.


See also: Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til I Get Enough” (#67)


Matt Medlock


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