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The 50 Best Songs of 1965

by Justin Farrar  |  February 15, 2013


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.

The bulk of the mythical aura surrounding the '60s can be traced back to 1967, '68 and '69. These are the years when mud-caked hippies made babies at Woodstock. When the brutal assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy left craters the size of Mars in our country's collective soul. When mighty Otis Redding delivered Southern soul to the peaking counterculture at Monterey. When Mayor Daly ordered the Chicago Police Department to crack skulls at the Democratic National Convention. And, of course, when the Summer of Love -- the commercial version, that is -- turned San Francisco into a home for wayward children in search of liberation through chemistry. It was during this stretch that "the '60s" became an actual thing that could be reflected upon (and inevitably exploited) in the arena of popular American culture.

In this sense, 1965 can be seen as a lead-up year. Many of the storylines and trends of the '60s were in place, but they hadn't yet crystallized into a mythos. San Francisco's hippies were still indistinguishable from the Beats, and they weren't hanging out in Haight-Ashbury yet -- more like North Beach or down on the peninsula, where author Ken Kesey and his Pranksters (as well as the Hell's Angels of all tribes) were holed up in the woods dropping acid and innovating the "human be-in." Mind you, lysergic acid diethylamide was still legal -- and as for that guru-iconoclast Timothy Leary, well, he was certainly popping up on television, but he had yet to be arrested or demonized.

Though the rock scene had yet to be "turned on" en masse, the coming age of consciousness expansion and societal upheaval that Leary would prophesize was slowly bubbling up in '65. In July, Bob Dylan unleashed "Like a Rolling Stone," six howling minutes of visionary poetry colliding with battering-ram drums and Al Kooper's screaming organ that mapped out the myriad alienations of a postwar generation gradually coming into its own. That very same month, he "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival to a rowdy roar of boos, jeers and taunts (though not as many as Boomer legend would have us believe). Just as pivotal in what was quickly labeled the "folk-rock boom" were The Byrds and their own electrification of Dylan, in the form of "Mr. Tambourine Man," a slice of dreamy splendor that certainly foreshadowed the psychedelic age. And not to be overlooked are The Lovin' Spoonful, joyously crying about how magic can set us free and dancing until dawn, and baby-faced Simon & Garfunkel, who cryptically ruminated on "The Sound of Silence" that befell the nation back in '63, after the magic bullet demolished Camelot with all the force of a wrecking ball.

While all this was going on, the British Invasion started turning louder and nastier. Herman's Hermits might've been selling records like Hula Hoops, but it was the Stones, grimy and sneering, who became the poster boys of sleazy cool. They didn't want to chirp about Mrs. Brown's lovely daughter; they wanted sex, money, fame and, most of all, "Satisfaction." Even heavier were The Who, exotic Mods who declared, "Hope I die before I get old" before setting off fireworks and demolishing their equipment in an act of ritualistic violence that served as a clear provocation to the repressive generation that bore them. But possibly the most snarling of the new hell-raisers were Them (with a young Van Morrison on vocals). They hailed from Ireland, not England, yet most Americans knew not the difference; all that mattered was "Gloria," far and away the most primitive and sexually charged song of the entire year. Not since Elvis (or was that Mitch Ryder?) had a white kid sounded so black. And speaking of diminutive frontmen from across the pond, Eric Burdon and The Animals very nearly matched the seething generational alienation of both The Who and Dylan with the doom-laden "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

By 1968, Burdon's "this place" would be inextricably linked to Vietnam (both from the protesters' and the soldiers' points of view). But in '65, questioning the occupation was still in its nascent stages. The overarching social issue was, of course, the Civil Rights struggle. In early spring -- just as Lyndon Johnson green-lighted Operation Rolling Thunder, an aerial bombardment that in the next three years would drop nearly 1,000,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam -- Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the rapidly growing Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched a series of marches through Alabama (from Selma to Montgomery) in support of voter rights for African Americans. Many of the fearless participants were beaten, tear-gassed and viciously hosed by local and state police. The unofficial theme song to these marches? Sam Cooke's gospel-infused masterpiece "A Change Is Gonna Come." In February, barely two months after the singer's murder, the tune – the writing of which was inspired by Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" -- peaked on both the R&B and pop charts. Just as politically aware (and maybe even more popular) was the sublime "People Get Ready," a hit single for The Impressions, a wildly sophisticated trio from Chicago led by one Curtis Mayfield; obviously, he would go on to pen several more social anthems before the decade was out.

But the link between the fight for Civil Rights and soul music didn't stop with that pair of classics. There existed a profound bond between the two, one that had become strong as they grew up together through the 1950s and into the early '60s. With this in mind, Fontella Bass' high-octane "Rescue Me" can be seen as a people's plea for salvation through love and understanding. On the flip side, it's damn near impossible to disassociate Martha and The Vandellas chanting "Nowhere to Run" from the omnipresent oppression African Americans woke up to every day of their lives. And then there's James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," both of which are extremely complex pieces of music. While their respective surfaces, amped-up and euphoric, reflect the nervous anticipation and intractable fortitude of the thriving Civil Rights movement, their relentlessly aggressive grooves look to the emergence of funk -- the soundtrack to Black Power and the movement's clenched-fist self-determination, which would supplant Dr. King's vision of integration after his slaying in '68.

Then again, we shouldn't forget that a lot of soul was, more than anything, great music in and of itself: gospel turned into flesh then packed inside three minutes of pure pop perfection bleeding love and loss, heartache and redemption. Rock music in '65 was awesome, no doubt about it, but outside "Like a Rolling Stone," little of it possessed the bigger-than-life theatrics of The Temptations ("My Girl"), The Miracles ("The Tracks of My Tears"), Otis Redding ("I've Been Loving You Too Long"), Barbara Mason ("Yes, I'm Ready"), The Supremes ("Stop! In the Name of Love"), Solomon Burke ("Got to Get You Off of My Mind") ... the list goes on and on and on. And while Motown's well-oiled, upwardly mobile sound pierced mainstream tastes in ways more regionally rooted Southern soul wouldn't for another couple of years, both were peaking artistically in '65.

As for jazz -- particularly the genre's avant-garde wing, which had shifted into high gear by '65 -- its relationship to the Civil Rights movement is an interesting one. As John Coltrane's wife and bandmate Alice explains in the documentary The World According to John Coltrane, "Jazz music reflected the times in the '60s in a different way, which was definitely not militant but more spiritual." Of course, as an outgrowth of gospel music, soul was on many fundamental levels concerned with spirit. But where "A Change Is Gonna Come" meditated on spirit in the here and now, Coltrane's masterwork A Love Supreme, released in February, sought out the spiritual on a decidedly universal level, far beyond the vagaries of the day-to-day.

Moreover, the saxophonist and his fellow free jazz explorers (as well as Miles Davis, who was busy following his own exploratory muse) experimented in ways that rock and soul artists wouldn't for another two to three years. It's as if these musicians were evolving at an accelerated clip, one the rest of us mere mortals couldn't fully understand. Through their raging fire music, modal blends and dissolution of compositional structure, they envisioned a Gnostic-style reality wherein spirit broke free from the mundane restrictions of the corporeal. In their view, humanity needed to transform into pure light and rise to the heavens just as jazz itself was mutating into pure sound and elevating to whole new dimensions of expressions. No artist personified this more than Sun Ra (who claimed he wasn't even terrestrial in origin). In The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One -- opener "Heliocentric" is one serious statement of intent -- the artist unleashed one of the great game-changers in avant-garde jazz.

Meanwhile, back on earth, the pleasures of deliciously dumb pop did not retreat from the charts simply because music was slowly turning serious, political, social, cosmic, etc. In its own way, "Wooly Bully" was just as "out there" as anything from the Sun Ra camp. Think about it: While Ra's Arkestra dressed like ancient Egyptians from outer space and played inscrutably odd music, Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs dressed in turbans and robes and shouted inscrutably odd lyrics. "Matty told Hatty about a thing she saw/ Had two big horns and a wooly jaw/ Wooly bully"… what does that even mean? Luckily for those of us who love rock 'n' roll party music, Sam the Sham wasn't alone. Other groups to hit big in '65 were fellow Texans Sir Douglas Quintet ("She's About a Mover"), The McCoys ("Hang on Sloopy"), The Strangeloves ("I Want Candy") and those founders of thud-rock The Sonics ("The Witch").

Back in 1963 and early '64, The Beach Boys would've been included in this list, what with their surfeit of Chuck Berry-informed surf and hot rod anthems for beach boppers. But '65 is the year when Brian Wilson started to blossom into the sonic genius that would eventually give the world Pet Sounds. In July, the group released their most luxurious production to date: "California Girls." On the one hand, the song isn't too terribly enlightened: dudes singing about California babes. Yet the tune's mix of post-Spector grandeur and soaring voices made it something so much more: a metaphor for the California-bred sexual-spiritual hedonism that was swiftly hypnotizing the rest of the country.

These days, what tends to get lost in any hip talk of '60s rock, soul and jazz is country music. Indeed, most popular history would have us believe the genre buried its head in reactionary sands while the hippies turned the country into a progressive nightmare (i.e. the "Okie from Muscogee" myth). But that's way too simple. Yes, a lot of country was mired in the kind of cocktail-soaked pseudo-sophistication preferred by what Tricky Dick would later tag the Silent Majority. Yet Nashville wasn't immune to insurrection.

With its wiry ensemble interplay, unapologetic twang and rock 'n' roll kick drum, Buck Owens and The Buckaroos' "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" -- the outfit's fifth country No. 1 going back to '63 -- further cemented their role as the chief architects of the Bakersfield Sound, a reaffirmation of gritty honky-tonk and a clear rejection of the saccharine status quo that was the Nashville Sound. The Buckaroos' back-to-basics approach would ultimately play an inspirational role in the hippies' own back-to-roots movement in 1968 and '69, with the rise of Los Angeles-bred country rock (Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Bros., etc). Ms. Loretta Lynn also deserves mentioning here; she scored yet another big hit with "Blue Kentucky Girl." Compared to the lush balladry of Skeeter Davis and dear friend Patsy Cline (who died in '63), the song's plucky banjo, rustic directness and old-timey stride were a defiant embrace of the very Appalachian heritage (i.e. the "hillbilly" stereotype) Nashville was trying so hard to sweep under its newly purchased designer rugs.

Another movement that was unfairly labeled reactionary by '65 was the folk revival, this primarily due to its excessively negative reaction to Dylan having gone electric that summer. But what's also undeniable is the fact that the college-educated folkies (huddled in places like Berkeley and Cambridge, Mass.) embraced everything from LSD experimentation to Indian classical music long before their counterparts in the rock scene. While Sam the Sham wailed about that "Wooly Bully" character, an unknown acoustic guitarist by the name of John Fahey would quietly release The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, an album that pioneered the fusion of American folk and blues with raga (check out "I Am the Resurrection" for stunning evidence).

The year also witnessed the emergence of another folk visionary (though one of an entirely different stripe): the late and great flat-picker Doc Watson. Residing in Deep Gap, N.C., a sleepy town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, far from both the marches in Alabama and the bikini-clad girls out in California, the blind guitarist single-handedly revolutionized how the instrument is played with such calling-card tunes as "Muskrat." Along with Coltrane's modal innovations and Dylan's blend of poetry and rock, Watson stands as one of the great sonic pioneers in a year that saw many.

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