The 50 Best Songs Of 1968
by Justin Farrar | July 10, 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.
When folks talk about the turbulence and turmoil of the Sixties, much of what they're referring to went down in 1968. It is, after all, the year civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy both were assassinated. The slaying of Dr. King was particularly devastating, as it ignited all through the United States a string of heartbreaking riots. But 1968 was also the year Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered Chicago police to brutally crack down on social activists and anti-war protesters, including the Yippies, at the Democratic Convention. Sandwiched in between these era-defining tragedies were the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive (proving just how deep and massive the Vietnam War had become), the rise of the Black Panther Party and Black Nationalism, the illegalization of lysergic acid diethylamide and the unlikely comeback of one Richard Milhous Nixon, who seized the highest office in the land thanks to his "silent majority."
Not surprisingly, all this turbulence and turmoil spilled over into music. With Mick and The Stones howling about the "Street Fighting Man" while America's cities descended into chaos, a new breed of rock 'n' roll band emerged, one whose love for maximum volume reflected the highly charged times. Outfits such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience ("Crosstown Traffic"), Big Brother & The Holding Company ("Piece Of My Heart"), Iron Butterfly ("In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"), Blue Cheer ("Summertime Blues"), Cream ("Sunshine Of Your Love") and Steppenwolf ("Born To Be Wild") all helped invent hard rock and heavy metal through a string of jams soaked in feedback and psychedelic awesomeness.
Meanwhile, soul, funk and R&B definitely kept pace with their rock 'n' roll brethren. Especially Motown. The mighty Detroit label released two of its most powerful singles in '68: Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and The Temptations' "Cloud Nine." The former's paranoia and desperation perfectly matched the dark vibes found on America's streets. Meanwhile, the latter and its aggressive wah-wah launched soul music into the psychedelic stratosphere. Not to be outdone, the "hardest working man in show business" James Brown got in on the action as well with "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," a gloriously funky, Black Nationalist-inspired anthem that surely scared the crap out of that "silent majority."
Even insular, reactionary Nashville was beginning to soak up the myriad social and political changes coursing through the country. Johnny Cash helped lay the foundation for the outlaw movement when he recorded At Folsom Prison, a brilliantly raucous live album that saw the Man In Black give voice to the nation's incarcerated at the dawn of the "prisoners' rights movement." Far more innocent (but no less potent), was Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA." Penned by songwriter Tom T. Hall, the smash hit dared to call out small-town (and small-minded) hypocrites in the process of defending a woman's right to rock a mini-skirt! And then there was Loretta Lynn's "Fist City," a truly rousing anthem about a woman who's prepared to make her low-down cheating husband (as well as his bevy of mistresses) eat knuckle sandwiches.
Now, having said all that, there did emerge music that somehow kept the turbulence and turmoil at arm's length. The profoundly ruminative "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," the posthumous hit from the late Otis Redding (who died in a plane crash in December of '67) might be the most sublime example. But right up there is The Band's "The Weight," a truly cryptic number, one whose rootsy twang and laid-back gait foresaw the rustic, back-to-the-earth movement that would sweep through the counterculture in the early '70s. Yet another key piece is the title track from Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, a visionary masterpiece that sounds as if it was transmitted from a mystical realm far removed from all the war, corruption and lies.