Project X Is Just About To Lose Its Mind
As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he counts down the best and worst charts of the 1960s:
A few months ago I used this space to try and suss out the Best and Worst Top 10 Billboard singles lists of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, with a special nod to the great 1957 list I treated on its own. Before I even got to them, I figured the ’60s might proceed differently. The most hallowed pop decade ever, after all, got that way by being the one where the music its generation of critics revered was also music that defined mass popularity. Not all of it, obviously: hello, Velvet Underground; hello, Flying Burrito Brothers. But so much did that I figured picking a single best Top 10 would be some kind of work.
Most of that work turned out to be a pleasure. Chronologically, the first Top 10 I seriously considered for Best came so early in the decade I started hoping against hope that nothing else would compare. That’ll show ’em!, I thought, the “’em” being some vague personification of the mid-to-late-’60s–the longhair-to-hippie era—that dominates discussion of the decade. After all, what do you think of when you think of the ’60s? Hippies, Black Power, Woodstock, the Beatles, Neal Armstrong, Chicago ’68, the ’69 Mets, and the James Brown of “Mother Popcorn”? Or “The Twist,” the Shirelles, “Tom Dooley,” Camelot, the Bay of Pigs, the ’61 Yankees, and the James Brown of Live at the Apollo? Chances are the former.
So it would have felt like justice, or at least fun, if the earliest pick really was Best, just as it would have if I’d found the Worst during the ’60s’ latter years. Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way. As with the late ’90s, though for far different reasons, most of what struck me about the worst early ’60s Top 10s wasn’t unspeakable horror so much as deadening blandness. Thus, narrowly, I chose this as the Worst Top 10 of the ’60s:
May 2, 1960 1. Elvis Presley, “Stuck on You” (RCA Victor) 2. Brothers Four, “Greenfields” (Columbia) 3. Connie Stevens, “Sixteen Reasons” (Warner Bros.) [corrected: I’d originally written Connie Francis] 4. Johnny Horton, “Sink the Bismarck” (Columbia) 5. The Browns, “The Old Lamplighter” (RCA Victor) 6. Jackie Wilson, “Night” (Brunswick) 7. Johnny Preston, “Cradle of Love” (Mercury) 8. Billy Bland, “Let the Little Girl Dance” (Old Town) 9. Percy Faith, “Theme From ‘A Summer Place'” (Columbia) 10. Brenda Lee, “Sweet Nothin’s” (Decca)
Sure, there’s charm here: Elvis, Horton, Browns. But that charm is too slight to put up much of a fight with its pale-teal-tinted surroundings, and “Night” really is awful. If cognitive dissonance is what you crave, though, try this.
Second-worst: August 4, 1962 1. Bobby Vinton, “Roses Are Red (My Love)” (Epic) 2. Neil Sedaka, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (RCA) 3. Brian Hyland, “Sealed with a Kiss” (ABC-Paramount) 4. The Orlons, “The Wah Watusi” (Cameo) 5. Ray Stevens, “Ahab, the Arab” (Mercury) 6. Pat Boone, “Speedy Gonzales” (Dot) 7. Ray Charles, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (ABC-Paramount) 8. Little Eva, “The Loco-Motion” (Dimension) 9. David Rose, “The Stripper” (MGM) 10. Richard Chamberlain, “Theme From Dr. Kildare” (MGM)
Ray Charles’s country-crossover triumph and Little Eva’s still-atomic “Loco-Motion” (probably the best rock record of the pre-Beatles ’60s, including Phil Spector) are of course unfuckwithable. But Stevens and Boone just make you want to fuck up the people who made and bought them: by themselves they’re reason to single this list out for opprobrium. I also felt wrong about naming as Worst a list whose No. 10 I still haven’t heard. If anyone has an MP3 of “Theme From Dr. Kildaire” they want to send my way (I’m guessing whoever holds the MGM coffers won’t mind, since they’re not currently offering the song for sale anywhere I can find), I may well come back and revise history some more. Finally, one more raspberry before the fun begins:
Honorable mention: July 12, 1969 1. Zager & Evans, “In the Year 2525” (RCA) 2. Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Spinning Wheel” (Columbia) 3. Oliver, “Good Morning Starshine” (Jubilee) 4. Henry Mancini, “Love Theme From ‘Romeo & Juliet'” (RCA) 5. Three Dog Night, “One” (Dunhill) 6. Tommy James & the Shondells, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (Roulette) 7. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising” (Fantasy) 8. The Beatles, “The Ballad of John & Yoko” (Apple) 9. The Winstons, “Color Him Father” (Metromedia) 10. Jr. Walker & the All Stars “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” (Soul)
Sure, there’s good stuff in the second half. But this is probably the worst Top 5 of the decade. In fact, I was struck by how uneven the Top 10s of 1968 and 1969 tended to be overall. There’s a parallel to the decade’s first couple years that tends to go unnoticed in rock historiography. Both periods followed massive upheavals (the birth of rock and rock’s explosion/expansion), and both were when businessmen began moving in. Thus you get sub-new-Dylan crapola like “In the Year 2525” and pseudo-hippie mumbo-jumbo like “Spinning Wheel.” You also get lots of Brill Building goodies, like “The Loco-Motion,” but the rule still holds.
Still, I found an extraordinary number of worthwhile ’60s Top 10s–nine, to be exact, the best of which were clumped into the decade’s middle. I’m presenting the five I liked most, for space’s sake, but if anyone is interested I’ll add the other four in the comments later.
Fifth-best: October 15, 1966 1. The Four Tops, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (Motown) 2. The Association, “Cherish” (Valiant) 3. ? & the Mysterians, “96 Tears” (Cameo) 4. The Monkees, “Last Train to Clarksville” (Colgems) 5. Count Five, “Psychotic Reaction” (Double Shot) 6. Neil Diamond, “Cherry, Cherry” (Bang) 7. The Left Banke, “Walk Away Renee” (Smash) 8. Jimmy Ruffin, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (Soul) 9. The 4 Seasons, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Phillips) 10. The Supremes, “You Can’t Hurry Love” (Motown)
The aforementioned Brill Building rule is in full effect here: Neil Diamond was a songwriter-to-order before stepping onto the charts, while the Monkees were, well, the Monkees. Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s recently published Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music has a great chapter on the Monkees’ desire for credibility in the form of writing their own material, and their subsequent decline; it captures the way ’60s rock turned the music business upside down far more vividly than a decade’s worth of Rolling Stone special anniversary retrospectives. As for 10/15/66, I like its balance, the way “Cherish” and “Walk Away Renee” set off “96 Tears” and “Psychotic Reaction,” and the fact that it introduced me to the 4 Seasons’ totally weird, totally great take on a Sinatra-identified standard–as daring in its way as the Drifters’ “White Christmas,” which made Irving Berlin spit fire.
Fourth-best: August 26, 1967 1. Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe” (Capitol) 2. The Beatles, “All You Need Is Love” (Capitol) 3. The Monkees, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (Colgems) 4. The Doors, “Light My Fire” (Elektra) 5. Aretha Franklin, “Baby I Love You” (Atlantic) 6. Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made to Love Her” (Tamla) 7. James Brown, “Cold Sweat” (King) 8. Diana Ross & the Supremes, “Reflections” (Motown) 9. The Temptations, “You’re My Everything” (Gordy) 10. Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Deram)
Any Top 10 with “Cold Sweat” is a Top 10 worth saluting, of course. But its placement helps make this a far more evocative Summer of Love time capsule than Sgt. Pepper. The trick is, so do the more problematic songs here, including the Beatles tune: “All You Need Is Love”‘s chin-up daftness actually works within this list far more effectively than a better record might, especially given its coincidence with the hippies’ peak media moment, and while Tom Ewing got at the problems with Procol Harum beautifully here, its confusion sums up the era too. And while the Doors have become too easy to laugh at over the years, it’s kind of gratifying to hear “Light My Fire” in this company: calling his group “erotic politicians” may have been but one of the ways Jim Morrison was full of shit, but hearing him lean into the first couple verses and choruses of this song makes you understand what he meant.
Third-best: April 10, 1961 1. The Marcels, “Blue Moon” (Colpix) 2. Jorgen Ingmann and His Guitar, “Apache” (Atco) 3. The Shirelles, “Dedicated to the One I Love” (Scepter) 4. Del Shannon, “Runaway” (Big Top) 5. Floyd Cramer, “On the Rebound” (RCA Victor) 6. Clarence (Frogman) Henry, “But I Do” (Argo) 7. Elvis Presley, “Surrender” (RCA Victor) 8. Marty Robbins, “Don’t Worry (Like All the Other Times)” (Columbia) 9. Ernie K-Doe, “Mother-in-Law” (Minit) 10. The Everly Brothers, “Walk Right Back” (Warner Bros.)
This is the early-’60s one I’d hoped would win, and on the right day it still could. I’ve long been obsessed with “Apache”–a revised version my presentation about the song, delivered in 2005 at the EMP Pop Conference, appears in the anthology Listen Again, out in November from Duke University Press–but it’s not even the best record here. That would have to be “Runaway,” still one of the most arresting of all rock singles even if you’re unaware of Del Shannon’s subsequent suicide. “Blue Moon” has the all-time doo-wop nonsense-syllable lead-in; despite fierce competition from K-Solo’s “Your Mom’s in My Business,” “Mother-in-Law” remains the all-time complaint about its topic; and the Shirelles song may be their greatest record. Unsung but well-hung: “On the Rebound,” a Nashville piano romp that just about defines the word “jaunty.”
Second-best: August 1, 1964 1. The Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” (Capitol) 2. The 4 Seasons, “Rag Doll” (Phillips) 3. Jan & Dean, “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena)” (Liberty) 4. Dean Martin, “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Reprise) 5. The Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go” (Motown) 6. Dusty Springfield, “Wishin’ and Hopin'” (Phillips) 7. Roger Miller, “Dang Me” (Smash) 8. The Beach Boys, “I Get Around” (Capitol) 9. Johnny Rivers, “Memphis” (Imperial) 10. Stan Getz/Astrud Gilberto, “The Girl From Ipanema” (Verve)
The most generously varied great Top 10 of the decade, which is a little surprising given how much more obviously colorful the ’60s would become, musically. It’s even more surprising given that only a couple months earlier the Beatles had the Top 5 all to themselves. Erase them from history, though, and Nos. 2 through 10 would paint their year as one of pop’s greatest ever. Right, there’s better Dean Martin. But even if most of the others here didn’t peak with these songs, it hardly matters. I’ve long preferred early Beatles to later, so it’s gratifying that one of their toughest hits is here; what shocked me upon re-listening is how bold “Rag Doll” sounds, how cutting, how emotionally driven. And while you’d have to try really, really hard to fuck up Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” anyway,” Johnny Rivers’s version (along with his wonderful 1966 “Poor Side of Town,” a huge, longtime favorite) makes me want to investigate him for real.
And finally, the Best Top 10 of the ’60s:
January 4, 1969 1. Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Tamla) 2. Stevie Wonder, “For Once in My Life” (Tamla) 3. Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (Motown) 4. Young-Holt Limited, “Soulful Strut” (Brunswick) 5. Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman” (Capitol) 6. The Temptations, “Cloud Nine” (Gordy) 7. Diana Ross & the Supremes, “Love Child” (Motown) 8. Classics IV ft. Dennis Yost, “Stormy” (Imperial) 9. Johnnie Taylor, “Who’s Making Love” (Stax) 10. B.J. Thomas, “Hooked on a Feeling” (Scepter)
The unfair advantage here, of course, is that half the songs are Motown. Oh fucking well. Half the songs in the Top 10 during the first two weeks of April 1964 were by the Beatles, and neither of those lists is here because neither of them measured up. (History thanks you, Terry Stafford and Bobby Vinton.) Here, though, we get five strong songs that didn’t originate from Hitsville U.S.A. and five that did. The worst of the non-Motown is “Stormy,” whose silly chorus is buoyed by a nicely yearning vocal and a terrific groove and sax break; the worst of the Motown by me isn’t “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” a trifle I’ve adored since my mother caned it in our living room when I was 13, but “Cloud Nine,” which features one of the snakiest openings of any record ever, amazing harmony work, and history on its side. “Love Child” I’ve written about extensively elsewhere; “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is such an obvious best-single-of-all-time it’s easy to forget, until you hear it again, how accurate it probably is to call it that. If all that Motown is too much there’s Johnnie Taylor’s Stax single to balance it out. And while I don’t adore “Wichita Lineman” the way a number of my friends do, I’m still happy to hear it again, especially in the context of this list. Even if you’re suspicious of the ’60s on principle, so should you be.