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by Mosi Reeves

March 7, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1963

by Mosi Reeves  |  March 7, 2014

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

It was the year before The Beatles and all through the house, not a creature was stirring … actually, much was happening in the U.S. in 1963, even though the country was mostly ignorant of the coming Beatlemania and the group's conquest of Europe (as well as The Rolling Stones' emergence as the Fab Four's greatest rivals). The surf music craze elevated The Beach Boys to teen idol-dom, though that group would soon transcend its fad origins. Motown's soul machine was winding into high gear with "Fingertips," a chart-topping hit from "Little" Stevie Wonder, but it would be a few more months before its greatest groups, The Supremes and The Temptations, asserted themselves. It was a year when the turbulent '60s of equal parts history and legend began to take shape.

No event marked our country's break from its post-World War II idyll more than President John F. Kennedy's assassination in October. That March, countrypolitan singer Skeeter Davis sounded a tragic omen with "The End of the World," a dreamily mournful ballad that, as Rhapsody writer Mike McGuirk aptly noted, "sounded as much like Lesley Gore as it did Patsy Cline." Incidentally, Ms. Cline also died young that year when her plane crashed in Tennessee, prematurely halting her rise as the most incandescent of country women.

It was a time when AM radio began to reflect society's previously hidden tumult. There was Mary Wells' "Two Lovers," which depicted a boyfriend with a "split personality," and which listeners have interpreted as the mixed emotions of an abusive affair. Lesley Gore's proto-feminist anthem "You Don't Own Me" asserted her right to independence from possessive lovers.

Martha & the Vandellas' "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave" seemed to be part sexual frenzy and part channeling of the Civil Rights uprisings coursing through the Southern states. Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady made it so plain that no deep reading of pop metaphors was required. "Stop! Look! And Listen, Sinner Jim Whitney!" goes the first track on that cataclysm of big band jazz and hard bop. Less divisive was Joan Baez's definitive interpretation of the old spiritual "We Shall Overcome," which not only entered the lower reaches of the pop charts, but also rang throughout the Washington mall during the March on Washington, site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. And few in the States heard Jamaican ska troupe Justin Hinds and the Dominoes' "Carry, Go, Bring, Come," but its early murmurings of Rastafarian culture would reach our shores in the years to come.

But let's not get too heavy here. It's still the '60s. We loved our dumb TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, and our jokey novelties like Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp)." We had silly dances like The Miracles' "Mickey's Monkey," and too-moony-for-reality pop ballads like Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him," which seems to equate a new boyfriend with a deity-like figure, and Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet," which could be a precursor to R. Kelly's "You Remind Me of Something" (OK, maybe not).

It was a season of breakout moments for the '60s' biggest icons, like Bob Dylan, Dionne Warwick and Otis Redding. Brill Building graduate Phil Spector dominated the charts with so many of his productions, from The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" to The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," that it's hard to cherry-pick a mere few for this wonderful exercise. And hey, did you know it was the height of the girl-group era?

"All aboard the night train!" shouted James Brown on his seminal album Live at the Apollo. Take a trip through one of the great years in popular music.

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