60 Nostalgic Songs That Define The 1960s
By | September 15, 2022
The Beatles - A Day in the Life
It's impossible to state just how important the 1960s were as a decade. The era was a time of great upheaval, but it was also ten years full of beautiful music and art that transformed everyday life from black and white to technicolor. The songs collected here are some of the biggest hits of the '60s and some of the more obscure songs from the decade that completely transformed the population as a whole.
Listening back to these songs today it's hard to believe that they're more than 50 years old. Many of the tunes collected here remain as fresh as they were when they were first released. From Hendrix to The Velvet Underground, and Bob Dylan it's clear just how many songs from the '60s are still relevant in the 21st century.
There are SO MANY great songs from the '60s that it's hard to really place them in a list but tune in, sit back, and kick out the jams!
The final track on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band isn't just The Beatles at their finest, it's John Lennon and Paul McCartney at their most collaborative. According to Lennon "A Day in the Life" is an excellent example of one writer setting down a song when it got too complicated and the other picking it up. He told Rolling Stone:
The way we wrote a lot of the time: you'd write the good bit, the part that was easy, like 'I read the news today' or whatever it was, then when you got stuck or whenever it got hard, instead of carrying on, you just drop it; then we would meet each other, and I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa. He was a bit shy about it because I think he thought it's already a good song ... So we were doing it in his room with the piano. He said 'Should we do this?' 'Yeah, let's do that.'
Listen: The Beatles: “A Day in the Life”
Jimi Hendrix - All Along the Watchtower
Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower" is the rare cover song that stands on its own and makes the listener forget the original. The song took about a month to record and hundreds of overdubs, with Hendrix reportedly stating, "'I think I hear it a little bit differently" every time he wiped out a take.
Listen: Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower”
Led Zeppelin - Dazed and Confused
Released in 1969, this iconic Zeppelin track got its start as a folk song performed by singer-songwriter Jake Holmes, but in the hands of the heaviest band in England, it was turned into a raw and unrelenting dirge about a man scorned.
Listen: Led Zeppelin: “Dazed and Confused”
The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter
From the moment that the opening guitar glides into your speakers, it's clear that something is different about this Stones tune. A crystallization of how the 1960s mutated from a decade of peace and love into something darker in under five minutes, listeners can feel the raw hedonistic despair in every note of this song. In 1995, Jagger explained the song's apocalyptic concept to Rolling Stone:
Well, it's a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn't like World War II, and it wasn't like Korea, and it wasn't like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn't like it. People objected, and people didn't want to fight it ... That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It's apocalypse; the whole record's like that.
Listen: The Rolling Stones: "Gimme Shelter"
The Beach Boys - God Only Knows
Hearing it now, it's hard to believe that in 1966 people were confused by "God Only Knows" and the rest of the gorgeous pop tunes on Pet Sounds. At the time the song was believed to be too square, and too weird for audiences. Time has really proven the doubters wrong.
In 2008, Wilson briefly discussed the strange key modulations in the song:
It's not really in any one key. It's a strange song. That's just the way it was written. ... It's the only song I've ever written that's not in a definite key, and I've written hundreds of songs.
Listen: The Beach Boys: “God Only Knows”
Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone
"How does it feel?" This one question asked by Bob Dylan in 1965 sums up one of the most fascinating decades of the 20th century and still reverberates today. According to Dylan, when he initially wrote the song as a poem he had no idea that it had the potential to become a song, let alone a beloved folk anthem. He told the Saturday Evening Post:
It was ten pages long. It wasn't called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn't hatred, it was telling someone something they didn't know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that's a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, 'How does it feel?' in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion following something.
Listen: Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone”
Simon and Garfunkel - America
Inspired by a road trip that Paul Simon took across the country in 1964 with his then-girlfriend, "America" examines what it means to be in the country both literally and figuratively. Out of all the songs that Simon and Garfunkel released during their time together this is one that shows the true power of Simon's pen.
Listen: Simon and Garfunkel: "America"
Otis Redding - I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)
Otis Redding is an undeniable singer and soul performer, but the timbre in his voice from the moment he begins singing on this 1965 classic stirs something emotionally that goes unheard in pretty much every other song of the era. Recorded with a backing band that includes Isaac Hayes and Booker T. Jones, this is truly an unstoppable classic of the era.
Listen: Otis Redding: "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)"
The Ronettes - Be My Baby
From the moment of this song, the audience is in full-blown rapture. The sound of the drums, their unique rhythm, and the way they lead into the verse would be one of the greatest musical moments of the '60s if it weren't for the gob-smacking, Earth-shattering, heartbreaking chorus.
The Ronettes may have had a troubled career, but in 1963 they recorded one of the most glorious pop songs of the 1960s. Weirdly enough, future stars Sonny and Cher sing backup on this iconic track. Cher explained:
I was just hanging out with Son [Bono], and one night Darlene [Love] didn't show up, and Philip looked at me and he was getting really cranky, y'know. Philip was not one to be kept waiting. And he said, 'Sonny said you can sing?' And so, as I was trying to qualify what I felt my...'expertise' was, he said, 'Look I just need noise – get out there!' I started as noise, and that was 'Be My Baby.'
Listen: The Ronettes: “Be My Baby”
David Bowie - Space Oddity
Is there any other song that captures the listless feeling of floating through space in the same way as "Space Oddity?" Rushed to release in 1969 just ahead of the Moon landing, this song is Bowie swinging for the fences and attempting to create something lasting and different from the rest of his catalog up until that point.
Bowie went on to become a musical icon in the 20th century, but in 1969 he was afraid that this song would make him a one-hit wonder. In 1983, Bowie noted that his one regret about "Space Oddity" is the fact that he didn't have any other songs that matched its brilliance at the time:
["Space Oddity" was] a very good song that possibly I wrote a bit too early because I hadn't [had] anything else substantial [to follow it] at the time.
Listen: David Bowie: “Space Oddity”
The Beach Boys - Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Is there a more glorious moment in the 20th century than the snare hit in "Wouldn't It Be Nice," one of the most beautiful songs of the '60s? Written about Brian Wilson's infatuation with his sister-in-law, this melancholic tune about forbidden love is a huge step away from the early music of the Beach Boys, and it took days and days of work to get it nailed down. Carl Wilson remembers:
The one song that sticks out in my mind the most is "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Brilliant parts. It was hard to sing without getting tears in your eyes. We all seem to remember singing it a lot. Many times. Many days.
Listen: The Beach Boys: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
Etta James - At Last
From the opening moments of "At Last," it's clear that Etta James is a bold and independent singer who embodies the blues in ways that are hard to comprehend on the first listen. This song has been covered time and time again but no other version of this song holds a flame to James' take on this beautiful melody.
Listen: Etta James: “At Last”
The Beatles - Something
How do you pick just a few Beatles songs that define the '60s? It's truly impossible. Every listener has a personal connection to a different tune, but "Something" is a special song from the band's final album of the decade, Abbey Road.
It's oddly rare that George Harrison gets a chance to shine on his own within The Beatles, but this love letter to his first wife Pattie Boyd proves that he was every bit the brilliant songwriter as Lennon and McCartney, the latter of whom said in 2000:
It was about Pattie, and it appealed to me because it has a very beautiful melody and is a really structured song ... I think George thought my bass-playing was a little bit busy. Again, from my side, I was trying to contribute the best I could, but maybe it was his turn to tell me I was too busy.
Listen: The Beatles: "Something"
The Who - My Generation
Nearly 60 years after its release the anarchic tumult of "My Generation" can still be felt within the very bones of this song. Explosive and destructive, guitarist Pete Townsend claims to have written the song after the Queen Mother allegedly had his 1935 Packard hearse towed out of the Belgravia neighborhood in London because she hated the way it looked. It's honestly insane if that's the real impetus behind this groundbreaking song, but it's also kind of perfect.
Listen: The Who: "My Generation"
The Velvet Underground - Pale Blue Eyes
"Pale Blue Eyes" may not be one of the Velvet Underground's bombastic assaults on normal life, but it's amazing all the same. It's a mournful tune about Lou Reed's first love, who was married at the time. Much like everything else about the Velvet Underground, not everything about this song is as clear as it would seem. According to Lou Reed, the subject of the song has hazel eyes, not blue.
Listen: The Velvet Underground: "Pale Blue Eyes"
The Temptations - Ain't Too Proud To Beg
It's absolutely crazy that "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was denied by Motown producers two times before it was recorded. This bluesy track full of longing captures a sense of raw, urgent need that listeners can feel in their bones. But that's not how Motown saw it at the time. They wanted something that would hit and hit hard.
In June of '66, the song hit number one on the Billboard R&B charts, something that The Temptations learned after the fact while they were on tour. The song only became more popular with time, especially with help from appearing on the soundtrack for The Big Chill.
Listen: The Temptations: "Ain't Too Proud To Beg"
The Flying Burrito Brothers - Hot Burrito #1
The Flying Burrito Brothers may not have been a popular band in the 1960s, but the influence of the band and their country-rock leaning "Hot Burrito #1" can still be felt today. Led by singer-songwriter Gram Parsons, a wealthy lad from Florida who wanted to slum it in a rock 'n' roll band, the Flying Burrito Brothers partied harder than any other group of the era (something that proved incredibly hard to keep up).
Regardless of the way in which the band fell apart, "Hot Burrito #1" remains a standout song of the decade that no country rocker worth their cowboy boots should ignore.
Listen: The Flying Burrito Brothers: "Hot Burrito #1"
The Doors - Break On Through (To The Other Side)
The opening song on the first album by bluesy California poets The Doors is as much of a call to arms as it is a standout opening single. There's something so bombastic and hypnotic about this song that it's no wonder that it completely shattered expectations and changed music forever. Initially unsuccessful upon its release, "Break On Through" is now seen as a sea change in American music that paved the way for artists like The Stooges, Joy Division, and Patti Smith.
Listen: The Doors: "Break On Through (To The Other Side)"
The Supremes - You Keep Me Hangin’ On
"You Keep Me Hangin’ On" has been recorded by a litany of great artists from Vanilla Fudge to Rod Stewart, and even Tom Jones, but it's The Supremes who managed to make the song their own. It turned out to be the group's eighth number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but beyond that, the track remains something that we can put on at a party today and watch toes start tapping regardless of whether or not the listeners were alive when the song was released or not. Long live The Supremes.
Listen: The Supremes: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”
The Stooges - I Wanna Be Your Dog
Wow, what a debut single. With "I Wanna Be Your Dog" The Stooges announced themselves as a rock 'n' roll force to be reckoned with. Not only does the track have a heavy pulsating drive that makes listeners want to rip out wall fixtures and jump around the living room, but it proves that the punk spirit was alive way back in 1969.
Iggy Pop went on to build an entire persona and discography over the anarchic power of "I Wanna Be Your Dog," but he rarely matched the unnerving ferocity on display in this track.
Listen: The Stooges: “I Wanna Be Your Dog”
Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love
Is there any other guitar riff from the 1960s that has as much groove as what Page throws down on "Whole Lotta Love?" This opening track from Led Zeppelin II (their second album in one year) came under fire in the '80s after its similarities to Willie Dixon's "You Need Love" were put into question. Robert Plant later spoke to the claim of plagiarism to Musician:
Page's riff was Page's riff. It was there before anything else. I just thought, 'well, what am I going to sing?' That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that ... well, you only get caught when you're successful. That's the game.
Listen: Led Zeppelin: "Whole Lotta Love"
Nancy Sinatra - These Boots Are Made For Walkin'
If we were ranking songs from the 1960s based on cover versions alone then "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" would be number one no questions asked. Written by Lee Hazlewood and recorded by Nancy Sinatra, this 1966 hit still touches on something primal within listeners who can't wait to dance and sing along when they hear the phrase, "Are you ready boots? Let's start walkin'."
Listen: Nancy Sinatra: "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'"
The Sonics - Have Love Will Travel
The Sonics were a band ahead of their time. These garage rockers wrote blazing, gyrating tunes that shook hips up and down the west coast, but they never managed to gain longevity beyond the regional scene. Even so, this song inspired legions of artists to cut loose and employ the same manic energy of The Sonics. Artists like Paul Revere & The Raiders, Tom Petty, and even Bruce Springsteen have covered this iconic '60s classic.
Listen: The Sonics: "Have Love Will Travel"
Ray Charles - Georgia on My Mind
Written in the 1930s, "Georgia on My Mind" became a sensation in 1960 when it was recorded by Ray Charles for his 11th album, "The Genius Hits the Road." Charles later told NPR that he decided to cover the song after his chauffeur noted that he was constantly humming it:
My chauffeur said to me one day, said, you know, Mr. Charles, you always humming that song, 'Georgia,' you always humming it all the time. Why don't you record it? Well, I had never thought about recording it. I just liked the song, you know. But I - it was the chord structure in "Georgia," I mean, especially in the middle part of it. It's got some beautiful changes to it. Hoagy Carmichael, I have to give him some skin, he wrote some beautiful stuff on that song.
Listen: Ray Charles: “Georgia on My Mind”
Bob Dylan - Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
Woof. This is not only one of the best songs of the '60s, but it's also one of the meanest musical rebukes of all time. Released as a B-side to "Blowin' in the Wind" in 1963, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is a brutal lyrical takedown of a former partner that, on a second listen, sounds like Dylan trying to make himself feel better.
No matter what side you take on this musical he-said, she-said, it's impossible not to feel everything Dylan says in your soul, your bones, or your entire body.
Listen: Bob Dylan: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
The 13th Floor Elevators - You're Gonna Miss Me
Released by the 13th Floor Elevators in 1966, "You're Gonna Miss Me" is a blast of psychedelic garage rock that shakes the walls and lights a fire under listeners in any decade. According to legend, one perfect recording of this psychedelic tune was accidentally erased from the recording machine when a member of the band left his electric fiddle on the mixing console where its magnetic pickup interfered with the tape heads and removed everything. Thankfully the band managed to get another take in the can.
Listen: The 13th Floor Elevators: "You're Gonna Miss Me"
Elvis - Can't Help Falling In Love
Originally appearing in Presley's 1961 film Blue Hawaii, "Can't Help Falling In Love" is not only a standout from the film but from his entire discography. It's not just the timbre of Elvis' voice or the dulcet tones of the background singers that makes this song hit harder than other songs from the decade, it's the longing that the listener can feel when the tune plays.
While many torch songs from the '60s sound distinctly like they're planted directly in that decade, "Can't Help Falling In Love" transcends time and space to make listeners fall in love every time they hear it.
Listen: Elvis: "Can't Help Falling In Love"
The Supremes - You Can’t Hurry Love
With "You Can't Hurry Love" The Supremes recorded a song that not only speaks to romantics everywhere with a fun dance beat, but that also stands the test of time. The truly startling thing with this song is that even though it has all the pastiches of a '60s recording, it doesn't sound dated. The same can't be said for the Phil Collins cover from 1982. Diana Ross and the Supremes have a way of making music sound as fresh today as it did when it was released in 1966.
Listen: The Supremes: “You Can’t Hurry Love”
The Kinks - The Village Green Preservation Society
With "The Village Green Preservation Society" The Kinks set themselves apart from the rest of the British Invasion bands of the era. Rather than exude lusty energy like the Stones or art school leanings like The Beatles, Ray Davies and company showed that they were interested in singing about their home country, warts and all. While speaking about his intentions behind the song, Davies states that it was inspired by a comment someone made to him about just how English his band was:
I was looking for a title for the album about three months ago, when we had finished most of the tracks, and somebody said that one of the things the Kinks have been doing for the last three years is preserving... nice things from the past, so I thought I'd write a song which said this.
Listen: The Kinks: "The Village Green Preservation Society"
Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man
Before one note of "Son of a Preacher Man" was committed to tape, songwriters John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins were hoping that their song would be recorded by Aretha Franklin. That happened, but not the way they thought it would. Atlantic Records producer and co-owner Jerry Wexler heard a demo of the song and made sure that Dusty Springfield recorded it first. The song was a top 10 hit in 1968 and it remains an absolute stone-cold classic to this day.
Listen: Dusty Springfield: “Son of a Preacher Man”
Johnny Cash - Ring of Fire
One of the most well-known songs of the 20th century, "Ring of Fire" is oddly contentious for a simple little tune. Credited to June Carter and Merle Kilgore, the song is purportedly about Carter falling in love with Johnny Cash in the early '60s, but that's not what Cash's first wife, Vivian, believes. In her autobiography she claims:
One day in early 1963, while gardening in the yard, Johnny told me about a song he had just written with Merle Kilgore and Curly while out fishing on Lake Casitas. 'I’m gonna give June half credit on a song I just wrote,' Johnny said. 'It’s called Ring of Fire.' 'Why?' I asked, wiping dirt from my hands. The mere mention of her name annoyed me. I was sick of hearing about her. 'She needs the money,' he said, avoiding my stare. 'And I feel sorry for her.' To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny. She didn’t write that song any more than I did. The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk.
Listen: Johnny Cash: “Ring of Fire”
Tommy James & the Shondells - Crimson and Clover
Released as a rough mix in 1968 after a radio station started playing an early version of the song, "Crimson and Clover" became a number one song pretty much by word of mouth - something that just doesn't happen anymore. James wrote the song after deciding that "Crimson and Clover" was a good title, luckily that worked out and turned into one of the most vibey songs of the groovy era.
Listen: Tommy James & the Shondells: “Crimson and Clover”
Van Morrison - Sweet Thing
Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" is inarguably one of the most important and influential albums of the 1960s. Recorded in 1968 in the middle of a tumultuous year for the artist, "Sweet Thing" captures that initial spark of romance that we feel when we meet "the one," or at least the person who we think is "the one." Morrison later explained the song in an interview:
'Sweet Thing' is another romantic song. It contemplates gardens and things like that...wet with rain. It's a romantic love ballad not about anybody in particular but about a feeling.
Listen: Van Morrison: “Sweet Thing”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Cinnamon Girl
Are songs better when the person writing them has the flu? Or maybe some singer-songwriters just need to be off their noggin when they put pen to paper, that's certainly the case with "Cinnamon Girl," Neil Young's blistering rocker from "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere."
Written in drop D tuning, "Cinnamon Girl" sets the stage for bands like The Pixies, Nirvana, and Soundgarden a solid 20 years before those bands picked up steam. Neil Young isn't just influential, he's ahead of his time.
Listen: Neil Young and Crazy Horse: "Cinnamon Girl"
Otis Redding - (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay
A tune this soulful could only come from someone on the precipice of greatness. Dreamt up a few weeks after his startling performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, the songs as finished by one of Redding's regular co-writers, Steve Cropper. In 1990, Cropper told NPR that everything he put in the song was specifically about Otis:
Otis was one of those kind of guys who had 100 ideas. He had been in San Francisco doing The Fillmore. And the story that I got he was renting boathouse or stayed at a boathouse or something and that's where he got the idea of the ships coming in the bay there. And that's about all he had: 'I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again.' I just took that... and I finished the lyrics. If you listen to the songs I collaborated with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. Otis didn't really write about himself but I did.
Listen: Otis Redding: “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”
The Rolling Stones - You Can’t Always Get What You Want
It's cliche to say that "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is one of the best songs of the 1960s, but some cliches are true for a reason. Listening to Jagger and company sing about the end of the party that was the 1960s is both sad and satisfying, especially when the listener is reminded that there's always a silver lining even in the darkest times.
Listen: The Rolling Stones: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
Merle Haggard - Mama Tried
Is there anything more country than a song about how your mother tried to raise you right but just couldn't stop you from turning into a rambling, hard-drinkin' man? Not in our book. Haggard's soulful spin on the way his jail time for robbery affected his mother is both heartbreaking and strangely life-affirming. It's also a lot of fun to sing along with the windows down as you speed down the highway.
Listen: Merle Haggard: “Mama Tried”
The Kinks - You Really Got Me
The riff that opens this song alone could be on this list of songs from the '60s. It's not just that it's fuzzy and heavy, there's something primal about the "Duh-dun-dun-dun-Duh" that introduces the world to The Kinks in 1964. The rest of the song doesn't have to slap as hard as it does, but that's clearly not how The Kinks operated at the height of their power. The simplicity at the heart of this anthem is so perfect that it makes us want to grab a broom and air guitar across the entire house.
Listen: The Kinks: “You Really Got Me”
Louis Armstrong - What a Wonderful World
Louis Armstrong's ballad to the simplicity at the heart of the good life feels like it's from an alternate 1960s where there was never any war and where people found a way to be nice regardless of how they align politically. It's a beautiful tune that still hits hard today because it's not like anything else from the era.
Listen: Louis Armstrong: “What a Wonderful World”
The Who - I Can See For Miles
The Who were really putting in the hard work in the '60s. Not only did they inspire the entire mod scene with their angry young man anthem "My Generation," but with "I Can See For Miles" they proved that they were more than just loud upstarts who liked to blow up drum kits and smash guitars.
"I Can See For Miles" is so musically adventurous that it doesn't need vocals, but Roger Daltry's melody elevates this track into the perfect track to blast while you road trip through the desert (or down the M-1).
Listen: The Who: "I Can See For Miles"
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Fortunate Son
In less than one minute "Fortunate Son" goes through a series of groovy, raucous changes and lyrical twists that prove that John Fogerty and Creedence are not playing around at being a rock band - they're the real deal.
With "Fortunate Son" Creedence Clearwater Revival didn't just draw a line in the sand between artists who walk the walk and those who just talk a big game, they burned down every other band and salted the earth. Much like many of the songs collected here "Fortunate Son" resonates just as much today as it did in 1969.
Listen: Creedence Clearwater Revival: "Fortunate Son"
The Beach Boys - Good Vibrations
Brian Wilson was on another planet in the 1960s. When he stopped writing straightforward surf-pop and turned his attention to pop songs disguised as baroque pop he changed music forever even if people didn't get what he was doing at the time. "Good Vibrations" moves through a series of twists and turns, each of them as exciting and exuberant as the last. The song still sounds ahead of its time today, but that doesn't mean we don't play it all the time.
Listen: The Beach Boys: “Good Vibrations”
Nico - These Days
Written by Jackson Browne at the tender age of 16 (seriously), this recording by Nico remains a singular artistic achievement by a singer who never got her due during her lifetime. There's a sadness in this song that's elevated by Nico's deep baritone tinted with her thick German accent. Nico reportedly didn't enjoy the outcome of her work on "These Days," but the deep melancholy resonates into the 21st century. After all, who can say that the lyrics to this beautiful song don't hit harder the older we get?
Listen: Nico: “These Days”
The Band - The Weight
With "The Weight" The Band proved that they were more than just one of the greatest backing bands of all time, they showed that they can distill their folk-inspired rock into a powerhouse pop song. Everything about this song oozes the listlessness of the 1960s and the simple pleasure of finding someone who can give you a break every once in a while. It may not be the most adventurous song of the era, but "The Weight" remains a sing-a-long all-timer.
Listen: The Band: "The Weight"
The Velvet Underground - Sunday Morning
As far as opening songs on debut albums go, "Sunday Morning" is an all-time great. Aside from being a delightfully strange introduction to The Velvet Underground, "Sunday Morning" also happens to be the perfect encapsulation of what it's like to be awake when the sun comes up on Sunday after a long, depraved Saturday night. Guitarist Sterling Morrison explained:
["Sunday Morning" is] about how you feel when you've been up all Saturday night and you're crawling home while people are going to church. The sun is up and you're like Dracula, hiding your eyes.
Listen: The Velvet Underground: “Sunday Morning”
The Mamas & The Papas - California Dreamin'
If The Velvet Underground were able to encapsulate the gritty vibe of New York City in the 1960s, then The Mamas and the Papas were able to do the same thing for southern California. Released in 1965, "California Dreamin'" solidified the California sound and showed how the Laurel Canyon sound could be exported to the world at large.
Listen: The Mamas & the Papas: “California Dreamin’”
Patsy Cline - Crazy
It's an understatement to say that Patsy Cline left this mortal coil too soon, but at least we were able to get her take on "Crazy" from 1961. Written by Willie Nelson, the track takes on a bluesy soulfulness thanks to Cline's singular voice. From the moment Cline croons the opening lines of this song it's clear that the listener is in the hands of an artist who knows how to play with our emotions until we're weeping in our drinks right along with her.
Listen: Patsy Cline: “Crazy”
James Brown & the Famous Flames - Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
Regardless of the era James Brown is incredibly cool. With "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" he gave audiences a tune that shifts and twists but remains danceable and poppy. With this one song Brown and his band essentially created funk music. From Parliament to Earth, Wind, and Fire, every funky artist that followed would be pulling from this song.
Listen: James Brown & the Famous Flames: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”
Elvis Presley - Suspicious Minds
Released in 1969, Elvis Presley's rendition of "Suspicious Minds" sets the stage for the glitzy country rock of the 1970s, but it's more than just a new outfit for the King to wear. Presley's voice has never been so somber, so full of longing as it is here as he begs the unseen subject of the song to understand his plight. The vibe of this song would inform not only the next decade of country but the remaining years of Presley's career. It may have been the beginning of the end, but it's still an amazing triumph.
Listen: Elvis Presley: “Suspicious Minds”
The Byrds - Eight Miles High
With this jangly tune about a flight to England, The Byrds essentially created the west coast sound of the 1960s. By appropriating the sound of the early Beatles into something a little more psychedelic but still pop oriented, The Byrds proved that they weren't just great songwriters, but they were innovators. The band went through a series of changes over the next decade or so but with "Eight Miles High" they hit an artistic peak that inspired hundreds of other bands and created a sound all on its own.
Listen: The Byrds: “Eight Miles High”
Jefferson Airplane - Somebody To Love
"Don't you want somebody to love?" asks Grace Slick as the rest of Jefferson Airplane tears up their instruments behind her. This song may not be as groovy as their other hit, "White Rabbit," but it's far more influential. Along with Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane figured out the quiet/loud/quiet dynamic that permeated alternative rock in the late '80s and throughout the '90s. More importantly, this song totally rocks and we could listen to it over and over again forever.
Listen: Jefferson Airplane: “Somebody To Love”
? and the Mysterians - 96 Tears
"96 Tears" is a singular song from the 1960s, both of its time and from a completely different universe than the rest of the music coming out during the era. This fascinating earworm is both a catchy piece of garage rock and a throwback to the exotica-tinged tunes of the '50s, but it's such a one-of-a-kind song that it's hard to compare it to anything else.
Without "96 Tears" and ? and the Mysterians it's likely that alternative music from the '80s and '90s would be a different landscape. It's weird, it's cool, it's something that could have only come from the 1960s.
Listen: ? and the Mysterians: “96 Tears”
Buffalo Springfield - For What It's Worth
Inspired by the 1966 Sunset Strip curfew riots in Los Angeles, Stephen Stills wrote this incredibly listenable and timeless tune that became an anthem for the back half of the 1960s. "For What It's Worth" appears in pretty much every film, TV show, and documentary about the grooviest era, but somehow its ubiquitous nature refuses to dim the soul-stirring nature of the song. It's proof that the power of the '60s remains strong even as the years roll on.
Listen: Buffalo Springfield: “For What It’s Worth”
The Monkees - I'm A Believer
At the time of its release "I'm a Believer" was seen as a teeny-bopper anthem by a made-up TV band, but as the years have gone on it's become more and more apparent that The Monkees are one of the most influential pop groups of the 20th century. Sure, The Beatles proved that they could be artists while making pop music, but The Monkees were able to be fun and weird while not losing any of their charm. Aside from the clear catchiness of this song, the guitar melody that soars through "I'm a Believer" is so deceptively simple that it deserves its own spot on this list.
Listen: The Monkees: "I'm a Believer"
Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Holy moly Hendrix had his foot on the gas with this one. It's hard to cherry-pick songs from his career that stand out because so many of the tracks on the three studio albums that he recorded while he was alive are pure psychedelic rock perfection.
The thing that "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" does that "If 6 Was 9" doesn't do is immediately set a vibe that even a square can get into. With this song, Hendrix was able to take his very specific sound and turn it into something that everyone would be mad for.
Listen: Jimi Hendrix: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”
The Kingsmen - Louie Louie
"Louie Louie" may not be the most adventurous song of the 1960s, it might not even be the most original, but it's easy to see why this track has become a party anthem for every generation. There's something about the sloppy performance by The Kingsmen that endears itself to people regardless of when they were born. Maybe it's the idea that you, the listener, can be a rockstar with a few strums of a guitar, or maybe it's just a really fun song. It's best not to investigate it and just sing along.
Listen: The Kingsmen: “Louie Louie”
Loretta Lynn - Fist City
"Fist City" may be a straight-up country song but it rocks so hard. There's nothing like hearing Loretta Lynn apply her soulful croon to a song about punching someone in the face for trying to steal her man. It's not just a funny song, it's a monument to complicated love that allows the audience to live through Lynn's bravado even if they'd never say the same things that she does.
Listen: Loretta Lynn: “Fist City”
Frank Sinatra - It Was A Very Good Year
This somber, soulful song sung by a late period Frank Sinatra is so different than many of the songs released by Old Blue Eyes. Even though he didn't write the track, it feels like Sinatra is looking back at his life and everything that he would change if he could.
"It Was a Very Good Year" remains a must-listen track of the '60s because it's Sinatra doing what he does best without bowing to the era's popular music. While carrying on as normal he also grows as an artist by admitting that he's not getting any younger.
Listen: Frank Sinatra: “It Was a Very Good Year”
MC5 - Kick Out The Jams
The MC5 may have imploded in spectacular fashion in the '70s, but with "Kick Out The Jams" they recorded a singularly anarchic anthem that informs rock music to this day. Without "Kick Out The Jams" there would be no Black Flag, no Rage Against the Machine, and riff-heavy music as a whole wouldn't be what it is today.
Aside from the ways in which this song has influenced modern music, "Kick Out The Jams" straight up rocks. You can put this song on now and it feels as fresh and wild as it didn't in 1969.
Listen: MC5: “Kick Out the Jams”
Stone Poneys - Different Drum
Written by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees, "Different Drum" tells the story of a couple trying to make things work, but it's the Stone Poneys version featuring Linda Ronstadt on vocals. Even though this song has been covered time and time again the version that everyone thinks of has Ronstadt's vocals soaring all over it. It's hard to say what's so special about this song other than the fact that it transports us back to a better time and that's what good music is all about.
Listen: Stone Poneys: “Different Drum”