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.
In the wake of President John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, the United States desperately craved distraction, something novel and outside itself, something "poptastic" that could lift downtrodden spirits. And that is exactly what the country got when the British Invasion stormed the pop charts in 1964. From The Beatles' manically euphoric "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to The Animals' funereal "The House of the Rising Sun," The Kinks' hormone-raging "You Really Got Me" to The Zombies' brooding "She's Not There," the English embraced our native rock 'n' roll and in the process transformed it into something new and exotic. As the great Lester Bangs once pointed out, "The British accomplished this in part by resurrecting music we had ignored, forgotten or discarded, recycling it in a shinier, more feckless and yet more raucous form."
Yet those music critics who go so far as to claim American pop and rock were wallowing in the doldrums before the British Invasion are misrepresenting history. The Beach Boys (as well as the surf music scene from which they emerged) were on fire in '64. Rivaling The Beatles' domination of the Billboard, Brian Wilson and the boys scored a whopping half-dozen hits, including "Don't Worry Baby," one of the most romantic pop operas ever committed to tape. Additionally, older rockers Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison were still unleashing snarling singles like "You Never Can Tell" and "Oh, Pretty Woman," respectively. But far and away the year's most vital development in American-bred pop came from the Motor City. Motown came into its full glory in '64. Get a load of all these monster hits: "Dancing in the Street," "My Guy," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Baby I Need Your Loving" and "Every Little Bit Hurts." And that isn't even half of them!
Besides the tragic slaying of JFK, the Civil Rights movement was the other sociopolitical focus point for the nation. Against the backdrop of the murder of three Civil Rights volunteers during Mississippi Freedom Summer and President Lyndon B. Johnson's July signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, artists as diverse as Bob Dylan (yet to go fully electric), Nina Simone, John Coltrane and The Impressions recorded powerful protest anthems capturing the mix of tragedy and triumph unique to the times. But what's truly remarkable is how tunes such as "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Mississippi Goddamn," "Alabama" and "Keep On Pushing" have proven to be so universal and timeless. Even in the 21st century, they continue to inspire young social activists still struggling to create a more fair and just society.
Of course, the songs already mentioned, however classic, comprise just the tip of the iceberg when one ponders just how much great music was released throughout '64. Allow me to list a few more chestnuts that will surely overwhelm your ears with their awesomeness: "Simmer Down" (ska landmark from The Wailers, featuring a young Bob Marley), "Hesitation Blues" (The Holy Modal Rounders were the first group to utter the word "psychedelic" in a tune), "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" (one of Solomon Burke's best), "Hat and Beard" (a masterpiece from Out to Lunch!, jazz genius Eric Dolphy's final full-length before succumbing to a diabetic coma in June of '64) and last but certainly not least, one of the sassiest pop tunes of all time, The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack."