The 50 Best Songs of 1969
by Justin Farrar | April 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.
It was the year the hippies conquered America. As Hunter S. Thompson reflected in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1969 was a moment in history when all them rabble-rousing longhairs (and their visions of peace, equality and free everything) "had all the momentum" as they rode the "crest of a high and beautiful wave."
The definitive soundtrack to that wave was The Youngbloods' "Get Together." Recorded in '67, oddly enough, it soaked the airwaves while setting the stage for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in August '69. Which, as we all know, mutated into a small city of hippies making love and swimming in their birthday suits. But there was music, too. Lots of it: Crosby, Stills & Nash (one of the first supergroups), Creedence (a hit factory in '69), Sly & The Family Stone (still positive, no Riot-era brooding), The Who (Roger Daltrey rocking the longest fringe in recorded history), The Band (ruminating on Dixie a year after Easy Rider indicted the South), The Grateful Dead (Hippies 1.0) and the mighty Jefferson Airplane (who slayed the mud-soaked masses with their "morning maniac music").
But despite the strong ties between the hippies and rock music that Woodstock further cemented, there existed numerous bands that had no truck with hippiedom. The Stones might've worn flowers in their hair during the Summer of Love, but in '69 they only had sympathy for the devil. Meanwhile, in the Ann Arbor-Detroit nexus, the MC5 looked like Haight-Ashbury refugees, but when it came time to "kick out the jams, motherf*ckers" their ecstatic caterwaul dropkicked psychedelia into free jazz and punk. And as for their fellow Michiganders The Stooges, well, they had nothing to do with Woodstock. "It's another year for me and you/ Another year with nothing to do," a 22-year-old Iggy Pop croaked with boredom dripping from his jowls.
On the other hand, the fact that those freaks released such anti-commercial fodder on major labels was very much thanks to the hippies, who forced mainstream culture to incorporate their espousal of no-holds-barred artistic expression. It was an ethos that transformed soul music and jazz just as profoundly. Compare two of the year's greatest tunes: The Impressions' "Choice of Colors" and Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By." The former, arguably the last classic anthem for a Civil Rights movement rapidly disintegrating in post-MLK America, sounds downright conservative next to Hayes' 12-minute mini-opera, whose forward-thinking radicalness exerted a massive impact on the development of R&B in the following decade. Just as revolutionary was Miles Davis' In a Silent Way. Clearly inspired by all the acid rock and underground funk found on FM radio, the album paved the way for both fusion and ambient music.
There are, of course, dozens more talking points in need of addressing, including the rise of minimalism ("A Rainbow in Curved Air"), the birth of Kosmische Musik ("Yoo Doo Right"), that wondrously exotic bird known as Tropicália ("Não Identificado"), Elvis' brilliant comeback ("Suspicious Minds"), Captain Beefheart's legendary weirdness ("When Big Joan Sets Up") and the fact that some of the best jazz of 1969 was produced in Ethiopia (where it remained until the indispensable Éthiopiques series made it available to Westerners three decades later). But alas, it's time for words to give way to sound. However, before you press play, consider this: Above and beyond all the incredible music mentioned above, 1969 was also the year that gave us "Sugar Sugar," "Crimson & Clover" and "Time of the Season," three of the most delicious pop hits ever made -- 'nuff said.