What kind of music blog would this be if we didn't even give our two cents on the greatest pop songs? A strange and backwards one, that's what kind. I'm more than okay with strange but backwards is a dealbreaker for me. It is a quality I cannot tolerate in others or myself.
I took a slightly different take on the usual music list. It isn't numerical, but hierarchically grouped under Greek mythological inspired headings. I do single out the most perfect song, but as the title of this piece explicitly states, this list is limited to songs since 1950. Perhaps a future post will focus on 1890-1949. But for now, to the business at hand.
To me, a perfect pop song must fulfill three criteria:
- Superior production quality relative to the time-period. It's got to sound really good. This also implies it's going to be recorded at a major studio. That's just how it goes.
- Themes and lyrics that focus on love, youth, freedom, subversion, defiance, fun, and despair. If you can get all in one song, even more perfect.
- It's got to make you want to dance, cry, or have sex.
Foothills of Mt. Olympus
Bye Bye Love, Everly Brothers (1957)
The Everly Brothers are pioneers in both rock and country genres. Their debut single, Bye Bye Love, released in 1957, is a brokenhearted lament, "I'm through with romance, I'm through with love." Mixing rockabilly, country, and early rock 'n roll, this hit is written by the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who also wrote another huge Everly Brothers hit, All I Have To Do Is Dream (1958). Nashville sound progenitor Chet Atkins plays the iconic twangy guitar.
Wake Up Little Susie, Everly Brothers (1957)
The Everly Brothers & the Bryants' partnership came out of the box with two truly stunning songs. Another fun melody surrounds a legitimately subversive subtext for Eisenhower's America. A high school couple goes to the drive-in and then fall asleep way past the girl's curfew. The heavy implication being they took advantage of the darkness and privacy of their surroundings to do the beast with two backs. Don Everly claimed it was banned in Boston and frankly I'm surprised it wasn't banned in more places. "What are we gonna tell your Mama / What are we gonna tell your Pa / What are we gonna tell your friends / When they say, 'Oh la la!'"
Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran (1958)
In his very short life, Eddie Cochran wrote and recorded some of rock's best known staples and was an early embodiment of the rebellious rock 'n roller. Summertime Blues is the epitome of that rebellious youthful attitude, as a teenager is looking to have some fun during his summer break, but his parents are making work if he wants to use their car, his boss won't let him off early to go on a date, and his congressman doesn't care about his problems because he's not old enough to vote. The song's bouncy feel with the humourous yet relatable lyrics made this a rock standard. What a shame he was killed in an auto accident at the shockingly tender age of 21. Even by rock 'n roll standards, that's really young. Hearing and seeing him perform, he seems older.
Their cover on Live at Leeds is one of the most awesome examples of their sonic power. The guttural sublimity of the note Townshend hits at the 2:40 mark will give you wet daydreams. (1970)
Pure heavy and hard acid rock heaven. The first heavy metal song to chart (predating Steppenwolf's Born To Be Wild). Listen for Hendrix's Foxy Lady teases throughout. (1968)
Promised Land, Chuck Berry (1964)
John Lennon famously said "Chuck Berry is rock 'n roll," and it's hard to argue with the Walrus. This fast-paced rocker tells the story of a "poor boy" leaving his home in Norfolk, Virginia and trying to make it to Los Angeles aka the Promised Land. The religious allusions point to the struggles of everyday Americans, particularly African-Americans, in the '60s and how California and specifically LA/Hollywood represented a chance to break free from poverty and abasement. A great song to play when traveling to Israel.
Where Did Our Love Go, The Supremes (1964)
The songwriting team of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier are responsible for no less that twenty-five #1 singles, including ten for Diana Ross and The Supremes. Their very first one, is a beacon for all-time. If angels exist, and if those hypothetical angels decided to sing, I'm quite confident they would sound like Diana Ross sounds on this record. From her first coo, "Baby, baby..." Diana Ross' desperation mixed with creative energy is bursting through. This is the song that put not just The Supremes on the map, but also introduced the Motown sound to the world.
Come See About Me, The Supremes (1964)
Side one of The Supremes' Where Did Our Love Go album might be the greatest record side in music history. It boasts the title track, this exceedingly catchy tune, and also Baby Love, which could easily be included in this list, as well. Hook after hook keeps me crying for this song. Come on, boy, see about your baby!
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones (1965)
The song that made the Glimmer Twins and crew superstars and one of the seminal songs of 1965, breaking the cultural dam which had borne two decades of postwar individualistic and sexual oppression. The song caused controversy not even for the sexual theme, but more so for the rejection and mockery of capitalism and consumer culture. On a side note, the singer's problem didn't last too long because less than two years passed and he was crooning, "She comes in a colours everywhere."
Injecting the Stones' song with some bonafide soul and some manic energy does this track good. A fantastic cover by a fantastic man. This is Otis' performance from the iconic Monterey Pop Festival during the summer of love, 1967. (1967)
This version takes out that magnificent guitar riff and it at first seems like disaster, but the song begins to shapeshift and jerk this way and that until it spasms, "Baby baby baby baby baby baby baby...." Martin Scorsese used to perfection in his 1995 gangster film Casino. (1978)
It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, Bob Dylan (1965)
I've written at length and will continue on the ineffable genius of Like A Rolling Stone but this is the hidden gem on the record, if there can be such a thing. Could it be because the title is too long and, typical of Dylan, nonsensical? Probably so. Who knows, who cares? Dylan's lines and delivery can only be described as sublime. The song is funny, sentimental, sexy, and spiteful all at once. If I counted the number of girls I've sneered the line, "Don't say I never wanted you / when your train gets lost," I'd probably come up with no more than eight but no less than six. This version is an outtake as I couldn't find a decent album version to link. Pure poetry.
I'd Rather Be With You, Bootsy Collins/Bootsy's Rubber Band (1976)
The opening notes, followed by a riff is so affecting that an entire bar will stop and exclaim in joy and surprise whenever this song comes on the jukebox. Just try it next time at a party or at a decent dive and watch the reactions. It's truly impressive. Of course it's one of the most popular songs for Hip-Hop and R&B producers to sample, being featured in at least forty tracks since its release. A love song from another point of view.
Wouldn't It Be Nice, The Beach Boys (1966)
Brian Wilson at his cosmic love vibes best while still retaining the pop sensibilities of his early hits. The earnestness of the message, namely the fantasy of being older and established to be able to get married, is both sweet and sad in its naïvete. The sweeping vocals, the unusual and avant-garde production elevates us into a heavenly fog. If at some point in the future I write about the most perfect albums, which as I write this I suddenly feel like is now an absolute necessity, Pet Sounds would certainly be rated highly...very highly.
Be My Baby, The Ronettes (1963)
Although this isn't my most perfect of perfect songs I'm quickly beginning to regret the categorization. How do you get more perfect than Veronica Bennett singing, "So won't you say you love me? / I'll make you so proud of me / We'll make them turn their heads / every place we go." Before Phil Spector went full-on psycho nutjob and murdered actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, he was up there with Holland-Dozier-Holland as the most prolific producers and musical innovators of the 1960s. With this song, Spector introduced his Wall-Of-Sound concept with string instruments, guitars, horns, and overdubbing to create an all-encompassing sonic experience. Heady stuff. Note this differs from the Grateful Dead's Wall of Sound used in their live shows in the early '70s.
Don't Worry Baby, The Beach Boys (1964)
Legend has it that Brian Wilson became so obsessed with the previous song, Be My Baby, that he had a sound engineer isolate the chorus and played it at his house and at the studio ad infinitum. Don't Worry Baby was the answer to Be My Baby from a male perspective. Although closer inspection of the lyrics reveal a darkened and twisted story. A young cat brags about his hot rod and is roped into a car race. Even though he's hesitant he feels he "can't back down / because I pushed the other guys too far." Meanwhile, his girlfriend, instead of talking him out of it, is encouraging him to race going so far as to guarantee him safety and victory solely because of her love for him. A prophetic omen for the darkness that will come.
The Summit of Mt. Olympus
Help Me, Rhonda, The Beach Boys (1965)
Bow bow bow bow bow...Oh pardon me, I was lost in a Brian Wilson hole. This song's honesty is striking and penetrating. It's a tale as old as love itself, finding someone to help get over heartbreak. He'll give lots of reasons why, and it really won't take much time. As if the insanely catchy hook wasn't enough, the experimental production on the outro will have you losing your shit, as I do each time I listen to this song (which is like five times a day, minimum!).
The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel (1969)
You may or may not have noticed, dear reader, that we have ascended (or technically descended but you know what I mean) to an even more exclusive category. These two songs are here because at the conclusion of each listening of these songs I think to myself, "THIS is the most perfect song ever!" When it comes to this track, who is in a position to argue? In one song we have loneliness, poverty, prostitution, battle, defeat, but in the ultimate defiance, "the fighter still remains." The chorus suggests a world full of lies and liars. The mesmerizing and seemingly interminable outro proved that Paul Simon was a more complex and profound musical genius than even his brilliant early folk hits had suggested.
The Head of the Pantheon
Dancing In the Street, Martha & The Vandellas (1964)
Here we are, ladies and gentleman, my most perfect pop song since 1950. Of this fact I have been convinced since I was an under-aged undergraduate in the early aughts. After all these years, I'm sticking to my guns. This song is pure happiness and joy, not to mention an important civil rights anthem that was accepted and adored by mainstream America. This is a Marvin Gaye, Mickey Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter masterpiece that encapsulates the Motown sound. Martha Reeves' powerful delivery cuts through a rhythm track that would have made the late Stephen Hawking begin to blink his eyes to the beat. The name-dropping of cities across the US, including Baltimore only adds to this songs enormous reputation. Not to mention it's been covered by major acts of the '60s, '70s, and even into the '80s. Come on, let's go dancing!
The Grateful Dead covered Dancing regularly and often used it as a springboard to explore new aural frontiers. Here is one their more unbelievable jams from one of the greatest Dead shows ever. (5/2/70)