For reference, here are the last five entries I’ve covered in my Billboard Hot 100 challenge:
– It’s My Party: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1963
– Glad All Over: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1964
– Like A Rolling Stone: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1965
– Land of 1000 Dances: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1966
– Groovin’: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1967
Another year’s past and with it, the popular music scene continues to get more and more interesting. The radical nature that has permeated throughout these past few years marches on with the Hot 100 of 1968. As racial and social tensions escalate throughout this latter part of the decade, the vital issues with which people across the country have become increasingly concerned are further mirrored in the music that these same people are listening to. In particular, R&B and soul music led by Black musicians projected noticeably topical themes about systematic prejudice and anthems about overcoming these struggles. One of the more explicit of these songs is James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (#90), in which a group of empowered schoolchildren chant its titular mantra in vigorous call-and-response gospel tradition that, frankly, cannot be topped. Another one of my personal favorite singles to follow this theme is The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” (#87), with a strong message of defiance, psychedelic influences, and one hell of a cowbell hook – all set across a sprawling eleven-minute length.
The R&B music of this era, as a whole, is driven largely by punchy horns, tough percussion, and larger-than-life vocal power, evident in such songs as Aretha Franklin’s “Think” (#94), Shorty Long’s “Here Comes the Judge” (#92), Cliff Nobles’ “The Horse” (#21), and Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music” (#20). Overall, there are more Black men and women present on this list than ever before (with The Family Stone being one of the first to cross both race and gender lines), anticipating a rise in a new kind of “funk” music, not quite as programmed to cater to White audiences. Amid this louder, danceable sound, however, came more softer, soulful selections, such as The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” (#22), The Dells’ “Stay In My Corner” (#64), The Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls” (#32), and The Delfonics “La-La (Means I Love You)” (#23). However, one of the more unusual inclusions on the list is “Cab Driver” (#86) from The Mills Brothers, whose barbershop quartet style of harmonic jazz gave them their peak back in the 30s – although this decades-later return is totally welcome.
Some more ever-changing trends from this year could be found within the landscape of the rock scene as well. While the complexities of psychedelic rock still remain very popular, numerous singles signaled a return back to the basics, namely in regards to blues-centered rock. One of the most definitive albums of this trend is The Beatles’ self-titled EP, customarily known as The White Album. While a number of tracks do possess surreal aspects, the album in general could be seen as a nostalgic return to form overall. None of the songs from The White Album could be found on this list, but the general structures and compositions of “Revolution” (#78) and “Lady Madonna” (#60) – both recorded during the same sessions as the album – demonstrate this harking back to traditional form of rock ‘n’ roll. While The Rolling Stones were still covering the dark topics of war, assassination, and poverty in their lyrics, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (#50) also exemplifies a return to the blues roots of their earlier days.
Coming onto the Hot 100 for the first time this year is southern rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival, with their raw bayou-rock cover of the classic rockabilly number “Suzie Q.” (#97). While this song is a sprawling eight minutes in length and is more of an elongated jam session than anything else, it also marks the infatuation modern rock bands have with old-school, blues-influenced rock over more modern sounding, psychedelic fare. Moreover, The Human Beinz’s “Nobody But Me” (#67) – a rerecording of an Isley Brothers tune – recalls a simpler time in music, where simple chord progressions, a swell rhythm, and dance-along lyrics were all that was needed to have a hit record. Other covers of older songs on this list include Gary Lewis & The Playboys’ “Sealed With a Kiss” (#95) (originally by Bryan Hyland), Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (#77) (The Supremes), The Lettermen’s “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (#74) (Little Anthony & The Imperials/Frankie Valli), Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues” (#56) (Eddie Cochran), and José Feliciano’s “Light My Fire” (#52) (The Doors). Changes remain a constant in this day and age, though its clear that a brief look backwards could also be welcomed.
So, how is the representation of women shaping up this time around? Unsurprisingly, the numbers look rather dismal once again, with only twenty-five women represented across twenty-one entries. Even more saddening in the quality of the female-led entries this year, which is certainly less exciting than in the past couple years or so. Despite ’62 and ’63 being practically invaded by a flurry of awesome girl groups, this year’s list only contains two entries from all-girl groups: Sweet Inspirations’ “Sweet Inspiration” (#84) and Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Love Child” (#27) – the latter definitely being the superior song. For every terrific song, such as Aretha Franklin’s “I Say A Little Prayer” (#93), comes something relatively weaker, such as Friend & Lover’s “Reach Out of the Darkness” (#49) or Merilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning” (#28). That’s not to say that good music from ladies don’t exist, because it always does; simply put, this list just isn’t the best example of such. And on top of all this, we’ve got the violent, possessive misogyny of Tom Jones’ “Delilah” (#66) and the tired sexism of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” (#3) tainting this list with their unfortunate presence. Certainly not the best year for the dignity of women.
Yet there’s no denying just how cool this year’s songs by women are. My praises for Aretha are absolutely endless, so I shall digress (for now) and instead aim the spotlight to Dionne Warwick. Her “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (#88) (penned by Bacharach) is one of my most-replayed songs from this year without being in my top five, if only for the fact that it’s just so catchy. In particular, the line “L.A. is a great big freeway / Put a hundred down and buy a car” is inexplicably awesome. Her theme to Valley of the Dolls – at #42 – is also pretty great, despite me never having seen the film. Tying in with the aforementioned nostalgia infatuation is Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” (#30), which is derived from Russian traditional music (hence the waltzy klezmer-like arrangement) and contains lyrics on aching idealism of the “good ol’ days”. Bossa nova artist Sergio Mendes’ recording of “The Fool on the Hill” (#69) contains the wispy signature vocals of Brasil ’66 staple Lani Hall, while “The Look of Love” (#36) is sung beautifully by Janis Hansen. Lastly, some of the best output from this year overall comes from Big Brother and The Holding Company and their explosive “Piece of My Heart” (#96), along with Jeannie C. Riley and the surprise country hit, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (#11). Keep ’em coming, ladies.
It seems that lately every year has had its own evolution of a certain fad, whether it be in a genre, style, or tendency within the music itself. This year, the trend lies in bubblegum pop, a particular branch of the genre in which musicians and groups are formulated by producers and record companies, as opposed to the artists themselves. Led into prominence by producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz of Super K records, bubblegum pop could most accurately be described as simple, catchy, repetitive, and perhaps a bit contrived. While catchy pop and rock music is certainly no new thing, bubblegum pop is purposefully concocted with its simplicity of melody, chords, beats, and hooks in order to appeal to a younger crowd with its overwhelming cuteness. One only needs to take a listen to “1, 2, 3, Red Light” (#48) from 1910 Fruitgum Company, one of the very first of the bubblegum bands. With its bouncy rhythm, spritely keyboard hook, handclaps, “la-la”‘s, and lyrics that interlace themes of young love with a children’s game, it’s not hard to see what exactly is so sugary sweet about this particular genre.
Although a number of other groups and singles could be cited as contributing to the bubblegum trend (Tommy James and The Shondells’ “Mony Mony” (#13) is a viable example, as are past hits from The Monkees), there were essentially three major hits from the genre throughout ’68. The first is Ohio Express’ “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” (#38), which would eventually prove them to be a one-hit-wonder band. It is probably the most explicit example of this music’s utterly superficial innocence – the lyrics indicate childlike infatuation with love and sugar, but could perhaps indicate stimulation of some other (read: sexual) kind. The second is 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Simon Says” (#33), which is certainly catchy and exemplifies the genre’s roots in early rock ‘n’ roll, as well as the clean image of the Teen Idols. The third of these major bubblegum singles is The Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine” (#47), which is also the first of these singles to reach #1. It is also the most blatantly psychedelic, incorporating the sitar and hallucinogenic post-production elements to best demonstrate early garage rock’s influence on bubblegum pop. Yet the lengths of this genre is certainly not to stop here, as the rise of this distinct style is vital to not only firmly securing the rock/pop divide from this point onward, but also outlining the trajectory of sterile, company-produced pop music for many years to come.
- Two important rock bands, two important singles detrimental to the history of rock music. The first band is Steppenwolf, making an explosive debut on the list with both “Born to Be Wild” (#31) and “Magic Carpet Ride” (#62). While the latter makes excellent use of the keyboard for a truly mystical, psychedelic feeling throughout, it’s the driving power of the former’s guitar riff and raw strength and ferocity in its lyrics that frequently place it among the greatest rock anthems of all time. The second of the two bands is Cream, their representative singles being “White Room” (#81) and “Sunshine of Your Love” (#6). Once again, while one of these two singles (“White Room”) is truly fantastic in all of its facets, the legendary riff and overall weirdness of the other (“Sunshine”) deem it the most successful and the most renown overall.
- I haven’t mentioned them at all so far, but the most represented artist on this list is Gary Puckett & The Union Gap with four entries: “Woman, Woman” (#79), “Over You” (#73), “Lady Willpower” (#34), and “Young Girl” (#15). I guess there’s a proper reason why I haven’t mentioned them yet – and it’s that every single song legitimately sounds the same to me. Seriously, there’s nothing particularly distinct about the arrangement, production, melodies, or lyrics that set any of these four songs apart from each other. None of them are particularly bad songs and there’s no denying that Puckett himself has a great voice, but there’s also nothing particularly amazing about any of them either. It’s strange how such blandness could consistently sell a million records, while outstanding talent like The Jimi Hendrix Experience are nowhere to be found.
- The instrumental tracks this year are a good bunch for certain.Willie Mitchell’s rendition of King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade” (#65) is a great example of the Memphis soul sound, with its steady jazz groove that cannot be beat. I’m not sure what the title refers to exactly, but Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” (#43) is a terrific work in composition and sound mixing, plus it’s so darn catchy. I already mentioned Cliff Nobles’ “The Horse” but I’ll mention it one more time, just because it’s one of the funkiest tracks on this list and a huge predecessor for things to come. Another groovy instrumental can be found with Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” (#18), which would only be improved by The Friends of Distinction’s cover a year later. Finally, Hugh Montenegro’s cover of Ennio Morricone’s legendary composition, “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly” (#8) pays perfect respect to one of the greatest western movie themes of all time.
- Speaking of music’s ties to the movies, there were quite a few songs on this year’s Hot 100 whose popularity may be directly correlated to the success of their usage in Hollywood films. Simon & Garfunkel provided the soundtrack for The Graduate, a film which usages many of their pieces very frequently – especially “Scarborough Fair / Canticle” (#89) and “Mrs. Robinson” (#9). Moreover, the aforementioned “Born to Be Wild” found much of its success through its prominent usage of the counterculture favorite Easy Rider. And then there’s Georgie Fame’s recording of “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” (#29), a song about the classic crime duo that correlates with the release of the film Bonnie and Clyde. I’d argue that, in relation with the times, both these songs and the themes of their corresponding films represent the nation’s desire to escape reality and dwell into a fantasy realm. Perhaps it’s no surprise why 1968 is commonly seen as one of the greatest years in cinema: the music may have a lot to do with this fact.
- One of my favorite under-appreciated singer-singwriters of any genre, from any decade, is Laura Nyro. Now, she herself is nowhere to be found on the Hot 100, but The 5th Dimension (who are also becoming one of my favorite groups of the 60s) had a big hit in ’68 with a cover of Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” (#17). They do terrific justice to the layered harmonies and thematics of the song, yet Nyro’s toned-down, slightly moodier original should not be ignored and is certainly worth checking out.
- On the inverse side of the original-cover relationship is the eccentric group The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and their song “Fire” (#39), certainly one of the more original-sounding artists on this entire list (and probably pretty overlooked, even by today’s standards). The first time I heard “Fire” was actually from a cover by Lizzy Mercier Descloux – another severely underrated artist – whose rendition of the song is practically unrecognizable from the cover.
- “MacArthur Park” (#51) – performed here by Richard Harris – has to have one of my favorite choruses of all time: “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark / All the sweet, green icing flowing down / Someone left the cake out in the rain / I don’t think that I can take it / ‘Cause it took so long to bake it / And I’ll never have that recipe again / Oh, no!”. That is all.
And now for my top six of the year.
Honorable mentions:“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (#90), “Time Has Come Today” (#87), “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (#77), “Fire” (#39), “Born to Be Wild” (#31), “La-La (Means I Love You)” (#23), “Dance To The Music” (#20), “Mrs. Robinson” (#9)
6) “Elenore” (#80)
This song comes from a concept album The Turtles put together that was filled with hidden puns and inside jokes. “Elenore” was intended on being a cheap poke at the “superficial love song” genre – hence the “you’re my pride and joy, et cetera” line. Joke or no joke, I legitimately love this song and I couldn’t close this post without mentioning it at least once. Goofy or not, this is song top-notch music-making from all members of the band, and even better production. It’s just too damn good.
5) “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (#11)
Prior to listening to this song for the first time, I had never heard of Jeannie C. Riley nor “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (which would remain her only major hit). I really can’t see how she never caught on – her voice is perfectly twangy and fierce, fitting with the theme of the song. And really, any song about the dangers of hypocritical sex- and promiscuity-shaming is sure to get on my good side. This one just happens to also be very well-written and catchy as hell. I’m tempted to leap out of my chair and cheer for Mrs. Johnson’s unbeatable sassiness. This song needs more listeners.
At the height of Otis Redding’s career, he and various members of The Bar-Keys were tragically killed in a plane crash. Before his death, he recorded “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” which, sure enough, is the greatest song he’s ever done. Without the added tragedy of his passing, the song may have been a little more light-hearted; as it stands, this tune of quiet loneliness has an extra haunting layer to it, only adding to its complex beauty. The bitter sadness of the song only swells upward during the famous whistling outro – a reminder that Redding had originally intended for more words to go in that part. Combined with the lovely ambiance created by the sounds of seagulls and crashing waves, this song is a site to behold in every way.
3) “Think” (#94)
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it time and time again: there has never been and will never be another voice quite like Aretha Franklin’s. The power of her voice only elevates the themes at play in “Think” to greater, more prominent levels. Much like “Respect”, this song exquisitely bridges the links between second-wave feminism and the Black Power Movement. When Aretha sings “Let your mind go, let yourself be free”, she isn’t just talking about women’s liberation, but rather a full breakaway from the tired confines of White patriarchy. Admittedly, I prefer the version she recorded for The Blues Brothers, but in either case, there’s no denying the pure empowerment felt as she belts her mantra of “Freedom!”. It’s definitely an important song, though I’d dare not try this on karaoke any time soon.
2) “Hey Jude” (#1)
I’m not sure what kind of impression I’ve given off on these posts, regarding my stance on The Beatles. It really is a love-hate relationship in many respects: I appreciate and even love so much of their stuff, but I also have so many issues with so many others. I’m especially not too keen on Paul McCartney, generally speaking. With that being said, it’s probably the finest work he’s put out, and one of the greatest Beatles singles in general. By stating this, I’m certainly not breaking any new barriers, but it’s really not hard to see why it’s so beloved. The first half of the song is a lovely, tender tune of consolation and encouragement, while the second half is just as uplifting despite the lyrics being little more than “na-na-na-na, hey Jude”. These are separated by the “better, better, better” break that I just can’t help but scream along to. People tend to give The Beatles a little more praise than they probably deserve, but this is one song on which I can totally come to an agreement.1) “Piece of My Heart” (#96)
Oh Janis, I love you so much. Now, it’s with no disrespect to the rest of Big Brother & The Holding Company that my bias toward Janis Joplin is one of the main factors why “Piece of My Heart” lands the top spot this year. It all goes back to when I was a budding music-lover, at about eleven or twelve, being infatuated with footage of her performances I’d catch on TV. Something about her mere stage presence always seemed so wild and unique – and that’s not to mention her gravelly singing voice, which I consider breathtaking and impossible to duplicate. Cheap Thrills is a great album overall but something about “Piece of My Heart” always leaves me coming back for more. The desolation present during Joplin’s quiet bits at the verses fiercely clashes with her thunderous roars at the ends of each verse and throughout the chorus. The blues-tinged structure of this single, accompanied by its gritty lyrics, make this one of the more darker entries on this year’s Hot 100. With every “come on, come on” that Joplin emits, a wave of intense passion seems to emanate straight from the speakers, resulting in one of the rawest, most epic tracks from this golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.