The 50 Best Songs of 1966
by Justin Farrar | May 9, 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.
Every time it's my turn to program The 50, I invariably say to myself, My god, this is the best year music ever experienced. But despite this penchant for hyperbole, it just might be true about 1966. I mean, holy smokes, we're talking wall-to-wall awesome tunes. The number of what Time Life Recordings likes to call "timeless anthems" is absurd, from "Sunshine Superman" and "When a Man Loves a Woman" to "Wild Thing" and "Paint It, Black," from "Try a Little Tenderness" and "Summer in the City" to "River Deep -- Mountain High" and "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)." And I haven't even gotten to "Good Lovin'" and "I Fought the Law" and "Good Vibrations" and "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" -- but you get the picture, I hope.
Let's begin our recap with the folk-rock boom, which only intensified in 1966; it also got way more stoned-sounding. Dylan said it best on one of the year's genuine masterworks, Blonde on Blonde: "Everybody must get stoned!" The Byrds were incredibly dedicated to such notions, seeing as how the L.A. hipsters were getting "Eight Miles High." Coffeehouse curmudgeon Fred Neil, in contrast, wasn't so declarative about his allegiance to altered states of consciousness, yet what else are you but totally high if you're singing dreamy ballads about world peace and "searching for the dolphins in the sea"? But far and away the most earth-shattering folk-rock hit of the year came from The Mamas and the Papas, whose calling-card song "California Dreamin'" helped kick off the hippies' love affair with the Golden State (a love affair that would, interestingly enough, end exactly ten years later with 1976's funereal "Hotel California").
But not every act was obsessed with getting groovy and mellow. The year also saw lots of intense, forceful music. Though it possesses a positive chorus, "Reach Out, I'll Be There" contains verses that showcase The Four Tops at their most desperate. A similar theme was also explored in Sam & Dave's equally pulverizing "Hold On, I'm Coming" (one of Booker T. & the M.G.s' mightiest performances). That said, The Temptations just might've topped both of them with "(I Know) I'm Losing You," a throw-down dripping in paranoia and despair. Mind you, this isn't the Temps of lush "My Girl" fame. This is David Ruffin and company inventing Black Hard Rock in two and a half minutes.
Speaking of rock music, the British Invasion was busy shifting into its psychedelic, exploratory phase. The Yardbirds -- whose legacy doesn't in any way reflect just how popular and respected they were in '66 -- led the charge with the fuzz-stained "Shapes of Things" (a harbinger of heavy metal). The Who's "Substitute" is significantly more acoustic, but the rhythm section of bassist John Entwistle and gonzo drummer Keith Moon unleashed a tour de force that was simultaneously violent and ecstatic. We Americans, meanwhile, were finally coughing up bands that could actually match these Brits in terms of snarling energy, and just about everyone emerged from the garage, so to speak. Love ("7 and 7 Is"), 13th Floor Elevators ("You're Gonna Miss Me") and The Monks ("I Hate You") were the most unique, what with the way each one mixed proto-psychedelia and raw punk mania. Slightly less visionary (but no less awesome) were ? & the Mysterians; the Michigan outfit's robotically funky "96 Tears" has to be one of garage rock's all-time Top Five anthems.
As for the most "far out" music of the year, it came from the blues and jazz zones. It was the underrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and not The Grateful Dead) who first perfected the long-form jam with their blues-world-jazz fusion epic "East-West." Also challenging the accepted boundaries of music was iconic John Coltrane, who released his landmark Ascension album. I guarantee the title track will crack your noggin in two, but so will trumpeter Don Cherry's "Symphony for Improvisers." It doesn't boast the historical cache of "Ascension," yet it very much is a vital release in terms of free jazz's fiery evolution throughout the '60s.
But enough talk, time to tear into that playlist!