For reference, here are the last five entries I’ve covered in my Billboard Hot 100 challenge:
– 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
– Dance to the Music: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1968
As the year-end Hot 100 of 1969 makes evident, the general quality of the music present at the end of the 60s is a huge turnaround from its state at the decade’s beginning. Gone were the slow, moody songs about young love and dead teenagers, as are the silly, weird novelty hits. Now, a heightened level of thought placed into songs’ complex arrangements and intelligent lyrics is to be expected, no longer the exception. Sure, songs about love and heartbreak are still around (The Guess Who’s sadly sentimental “These Eyes” (#44) might as well have been written in the early part of the decade), as are the not-so-serious novelty music (Ray Stevens is still hanging around, with the goofy “Gitarzan” (#61)). Yet as more social and political issues rise to the forefront of importance to young people – the primary targets of record companies – the popular music composed during this era sought to reflect these concerns, even if a very implicit manner. As such, the shifts that occurred in both the pop and especially the rock music scenes have demonstrated some of the most radical, influential changes ever documented in the medium.
At this point, the counterculture movement has undoubtedly secured its place within the confines of history, in the music scene and elsewhere. Two of the most legendary music-related events to occur in the real world this year are the music festivals of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair and the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. While the latter – a huge collection of non-corporate, crowd-funded celebration of peace and love – is heralded as the culmination of the hippie movement, the latter – a poorly-arranged, violent, inevitably tragic incident – is regarded as its metaphoric death. Nevertheless, this huge movement is reflected upon in a mostly positive light, thanks in large part to the music of the era that freely promoted these ideals of love, peace, and respect. The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” (#39) emitted its message of love while also staying true to the psychedelic sound of the times. The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” (#16) is one of the most iconic of these songs with its chorus, “Come on, people now / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together / And try to love one another right now”. Sly and The Family Stone (a group that crossed both ethnic and gender barriers) had a huge hit in ’69 with “Everyday People” (#5), a song which emphasized acceptance and equality between people of differing racial groups and social classes.
In general, this year had a notable amount of songs that dealt with a general feeling of overall happiness and contentment, usually in the case of romantic love. While these types of love songs certainly aren’t anything new (such Teen Idol pop was widespread in the early 60s, on which I was just reminiscing), their culmination is particularly notable in this year at the height of the counterculture era. While previous years sought out at bringing awareness to war and injustice, this year seems partial to bringing good ol’ classic love back into everyday living. Besides their output of songs covering racism, Sly and The Family Stone also brought the good vibes with the sunny “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (#7). The infectious sensation of seasonal summery weather is also emitted by The Friends of Distinction with “Grazing in the Grass” (#17), an extremely fun cover of the Hugh Masekela instrumental from the previous year.
But this abundance of lyrical love and tonal happiness doesn’t stop there – in fact, it’s as evident as taking a look at the top spot of the list. Indeed, “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies (a completely fictional band based off comic book characters) is highly regarded as a sort of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” of bubblegum pop, being hugely commercially successful while also setting forth the genre’s golden age. Another love-infused bubblegum hit came in the form of Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” (#6), although most major singles from this year that covered these themes were separated from this genre. One of the best showcases of traditional love lyrics in a modern age can be found in B.J. Thomas’ “Hooked On a Feeling” (#99), with its beautiful sitar intro and simplistic, soaring emotions. Blood, Sweat, & Tears’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” (#45) also deal with identical themes as the others, although the song’s major strengths could mostly be found in its layered, jazz-infused arrangement and production. Jay and the Americans successfully fight for modern-era relevancy in their cover of “This Magic Moment” (#56), while the chorus of Spiral Starecase’s “More Today Than Yesterday” (#50) – “I love you more today than yesterday / But only half as much as tomorrow” – is simply adorable and charming.
Now is the part that I hate talking about, but is still very important to acknowledge – I’m talking, of course, about the lack of female representation on this list. It’s disappointing for me to report that this year, with only twenty women spread across sixteen entries. This is, more or less, around the same numbers that came up in ’61, one year before the start of the girl group era. This means, sadly, that any place where the representation of women had taken strides forward was set backwards by inevitable backlash and continued preference toward male musicians. Even more disappointing is the near-disappearance of solo female performers, whereas mixed-gender bands are often dominated by men and, thus, male-coded to the average listener. The only three solo women to be found here are Jackie DeShannon with her hippie-spirited “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” (#46), Dionne Warwick with her exquisite Herb Alpert cover, “This Girl’s in Love With You” (#64), and “Mama” Cass Elliot’s debut solo venture, the tenderly honest “It’s Getting Better” (#55).
Indeed, most of the prime examples of lady vocalist come under the guise of bands and music groups in which these women are a part of. The Friends of Distinction, for one, feature the backup vocals of Jessica Cleaves and Barbara Jean Love; besides “Grazing in the Grass”, they can also be found on this list with the soulful single, “Going in Circles” (#29). One of the more unusual entries on this list is the religious gospel number from The Edwin Hawkins Singers “Oh Happy Day” (#93), featuring the powerful vocals of Dorothy Morrison. Mercy’s “Love (Can Make You Happy)” (#42) is a big help to these numbers, given that the band contained four women at this point: Ann Sigler, Brenda McNish, Debbie Lewis, and Deni Hawley. Diana Ross and The Supremes – Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong – teamed up with the The Temptations this year with the delightfully catchy “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (#87). Finally (for now), one of my very favorite covers could be found on this list, as Smith’s rendition of The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” (#34) features the outstanding vocal performance of Gayle McCormick which takes this little love song to a whole other level. Nonetheless, here’s to hoping that the 70s treats the ladies a little more kinder.
As far as soul and R&B is concerned, these genres are still at the top of their game throughout ’69. And, as predicted, the Motown label still dominates these fields in terms of quality and innovation, responsible for two of the biggest artists to call this year the one in which they’ve reached their prime. The first of these two is Marvin Gaye, whose cover of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (#88) proved, with time, to be the definitive recording of the song. He also has two other great singles on this Hot 100 – “That’s The Way Love Is” (#72) and “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (#14) – but its the dark undertones of Gaye’s singing and Norman Whitfield’s production in “Grapevine” that make the single a truly landmark recording. The second of these two acts, of course, are The Temptations, whose album Cloud Nine paved the way for an increasingly eclectic and psychedelic brand of soul. As demonstrated by the nine-minute soul epic “Runaway Child, Running Wild” (#57) – also produced by Whitfield – the possibilities for R&B music are even greater than predecessors had even begun to imagine.
Yet, even among the more frequently traditional, less radical R&B stuff on the charts, one could find a fair number of true musical gems. James Brown, for example, is still putting out hits, with the frenetic, rampantly funky “Mother Popcorn” (#68). Smokey Robinson and The Miracles wrap up a full decade of success and prominence with the groovy yet stylistically typical “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” (#37). One-hit-wonder group The Foundations successfully crossover R&B music for the pop-loving White audiences with the infectiously catchy “Build Me Up Buttercup” (#9). The Isley Brothers continue their sphere of influence with their topical, ear-grabbing “It’s Your Thing” (#21), while Edwin Starr makes his debut on this Hot 100 with the danceable, horn-and-percussion-led “Twenty-Five Miles” (#69). The Originals bring back the slow, sleepy charms of old-school doo-wop with “Baby, I’m For Real” (#92), although The Dells’ rerecording of their own doo-wop classic “Oh, What a Night” (#82) proves a little less successful. Finally, Stevie Wonder returns to inform listeners that he’s not so “little” anymore, with his amazing, legendary classic “My Cherie Amour” (#32).
As far as the world of rock ‘n’ roll is concerned, 1969 brought a few changes in what the world was interested in at the time. In general, it seemed that the British Invasion had its peak and modern culture was slowly moving onto different things. The Beatles at this point, however, were still hanging on, appearing on this list with “Something” (#83) and “Come Together” (#85) from their legendary Abbey Road album. However, they were soon to be no more and would break up the following year; their third single on this list, “Get Back” (#25), would appear as the closing track for their final release Let It Be. However, the appeal of British bands hadn’t completely died out at this point, as the second most infamous English band The Rolling Stones would also appear here, with the back-to-basics melody “Honky Tonk Woman” (#4). Also found here is Donovan with his uniquely poetic “Atlantis” (#53), suddenly creating more of a market for five-minute-long spoken-word musical numbers.
Generally speaking, the rock scene at this point tended to turn its favor back on domestic bands from the States (or, in The Guess Who’s case, North America). There were few musical acts who had a better year than Creedence Clearwater Revival – after their appearance near the bottom of 1968’s Hot 100, they reappear here with three separate singles, from two separate albums recorded within the same year. All three of these songs are utmost classics – from the catchy minimalism of “Proud Mary” (#19), to the gritty “Green River” (#31), to the classic, counterculture-appealing “Bad Moon Rising” (#24) – and represent the core of Southern rock that would blossom in later years. Yet the keyboard-driven fun of garage rock hasn’t fallen completely out of line, as seen by Crazy Elephant (“Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'” (#89)), The Doors (“Touch Me” (#49)), and Paul Revere and The Raiders (“Let Me” (100), “Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon” (#95)). Finally, newcomers Three Dog Night come onto the scene with their lovely cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One”, helping to usher in a new kind of rock that would grow into greater prominence in the 70s.
At this point, I’ll list just a few things I should briefly mention before moving onto my top songs of this year.
- After the success of his televised comeback special in ’68, Elvis Presley returned to recording music on a frequent basis. Up until this point, he has become the most long-standing artist in the Hot 100 (his debut in ’56 even predates the Hot 100). He has two songs on this year’s list, both of which I personally believe are some of the best of his whole career. “In The Ghetto” (#35) effectively addresses the very real issue of generational poverty to an era of listeners that would actually find interest in such a song. Moreover, “Suspicious Minds” (#18) finds its strengths in its painfully honest lyrics, Presley’s soothing baritone, and the gospel-esque background vocalists.
- Surprisingly, some of the highest charting singles from this year were recordings of songs taken directly from a stage musical. Sure, movie soundtracks and theme songs find their way into these lists from time to time, but the surge in popularity of the musical Hair proved something else entirely. In total, four songs from the musical found chart success from recordings by popular artists; these include Oliver’s rendition of the bizarrely happy “Good Morning Starshine” (#43), The Cowsills’ fun cover of the title song, “Hair” (#13) Three Dog Night’s lovely recording of “Easy To Be Hard” (#33), and The 5th Dimension’s soaring attempt at the immensely iconic medley, “Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In” (#2). Keeping in mind that I’m relatively unfamiliar with the musical and am listening to these out of context, I find them all a little out of left field, but mostly delightful nonetheless.
- Following the footsteps of his fellow Rat Packers Sinatra and Martin, who have found continued success long after their heyday, Sammy Davis Jr. makes a neat little appearance on his list with his rendition of “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (#51). I’ve heard a few versions of this song, but I’m pretty confident when I state that his recording is one of the best, aided by his infectiously smooth vocal talent.
- It’s interesting that there are not one, but two songs on this list about the apocalypse or end of the world. The first is “Bad Moon Rising”, evident in lyrics such as, “I hear hurricanes a blowing / I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing / I hear the voice of rage and ruin… Hope you got your things together / Hope you are quite prepared to die / Looks like we’re in for nasty weather / One eye is taken for an eye”. The other is Zager & Evan’s masterful hit (their only one), “In the Year 2525” (#26). The writing of this song details the centuries of time predating the apocalypse, during which technology progresses so much it eventually consumes humankind. At one point, it’s even said that God expresses discontent at mankind, stating “‘Guess it’s time for the Judgement Day'”. Given that both of these songs chart relatively high, one could infer that this cynicism is a sort of backlash against the idealism of the dying age of the hippies.
- As far as instrumental tracks go, there were only four of them put out this year and only by three different artists. Booker T. and the M.G.’s prove to be some of the finest, funkiest R&B musicians with the equally delightful “Hang ‘Em High” (#90) and “Time is Tight” (#63). Meanwhile, The Ventures make an unexpected – but welcomed – return onto the charts, this time with a TV theme, “Hawaii Five-O” (#58), a piece that is catchy as hell and one that I’m sure all those surf-rock cover bands are super grateful for. Finally, Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme” to Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (#15) is, truthfully, not the best of Mancini’s productions, but lovely nevertheless.
- Let’s talk about folk and country – a couple genres that grow more prominent in the fold of the 1970s music culture. This year, Johnny Cash released the groundbreaking live album At San Quentin, featuring the awesome Shel Silverstein-penned single “A Boy Named Sue” (#36). Along with this is another fabulous songwriter named Harry Nilsson, who graces the charts with his presence through the beautifully melancholy “Everybody’s Talkin'” (#73). Kenny Rogers makes his debut on this list with The First Edition, via their single “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” (#78) – not a very promising start, if I’m being honest. The same goes with Glen Campbell’s debut “Galveston” (#59), as well as Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” (#77), both of which are frankly pretty forgettable. The good news is that Bob Dylan’s exquisite songwriting is still present on these charts, while also showing off a richer, deeper-sounding voice with “Lay Lady Lay” (#52).
- As is inevitable with as rich of a music environment that has developed at this point, there are so many artists, albums, and singles that for whatever reason never made a dent in the year-end music charts. Here, I’ll recommend a few music things for ’69 that I personally enjoy and didn’t find anywhere on this list (keeping in mind that I’m definitely leaving out a lot): King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, The Who’s Tommy, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, The Stooges’ self-titled album, Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life”, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke”, Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?”, Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, and Leonard Cohen’s Songs From a Room.
Now, I’ll finish this post off my listing my top six songs from 1969’s Hot 100.
Honorable mentions: “Come Together” (#85), “Touch Me” (#49), “Time of the Season” (#39), “In The Ghetto” (#35), “Baby It’s You” (#34), “Bad Moon Rising” (#24), “Suspicious Minds” (#18), “Grazing in the Grass” (#17), “Crimson and Clover” (#10), “Build Me Up Buttercup” (#9)
6) “Everybody’s Talkin'” (#73)
I was familiar with this song before, due to the movie Midnight Cowboy, and frankly have not listened to much else from Harry Nilsson since my first listen. Yet this song alone clearly makes the case that his songwriting talents are a force to be reckoned with. The feelings illustrated in the song – that of introversion, the utter inability to connect with others – are some that resonate with me so deeply, almost painfully so. I only wish the song itself were so much longer.
5) “Everyday People” (#5)
In an era were everyone began to seek heightened awareness on topics of racism and other injustices, Sly and The Family Stone were at the top of their game. Although the “there is the blue one who can’t accept the green one” chant may come off as a bit silly, it also addresses the blatant preposterousness that surrounds the whole idea of prejudice as a whole. Displacing someone based on elements of identity? Why? “And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo”? Of course, Sly Stone’s insisting that “We’ve got to live together!” are truly what cut the deepest.
4) “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (#88)
The beginning notes of Marvin Gaye’s recording of “Grapevine” indicate something dark, seedy, and scary is about to go underfoot. Contrary to much of the R&B music getting released this day, this one wasn’t funky and it surely isn’t one to dance to. Nonetheless, it demonstrates some of the singer’s best vocals of his career, while also showing off some excellent Funk Brothers instrumentation and production from Whitfield. Realizing a loved one’s infidelity is a sad, ugly feeling, one that comes with the weight of hopelessness and distress, and Gaye’s cover of this song probably professes these feelings the best.
3) “Something” (#83)
George Harrison will probably always be my favorite Beatle, if only for his songwriting alone. Likewise, “Something” is one of the most genuine, precious love songs I’ve ever heard and certainly one of my favorite Beatles songs (another is “Here Comes The Sun”, another Harrison-penned work on Abbey Road). This song demonstrates how far the group have gone with their “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”-style lyricisms. I mean, just through one line alone it demonstrates how scary the uncertainty of love really is: “You’re asking me, will my love grow? / I don’t know, I don’t know”. Of course, the work from the other guys really helps make the sound of this song the wondrous piece of art that it is – but I’m still garnering my praises to George for this one. Thank you, George!
2) “Runaway Child, Running Wild” (#57)
Before starting this list, I’ve never heard a single track from this album, including this song. Now that I’ve completed the whole thing, I almost wish I hadn’t – not because it’s bad, because not a single quality about it is sub par. “Runaway Child, Running Wild” is one of those songs which I wish I could listen to for the very first time again. Few songs demonstrate the utter desperation and helplessness of runaway homeless youth that this song emits. Set across a psychedelia-influenced production, to the tune of a number of harmonizing voices (perhaps all in the subject’s head?), set to lyrics that juxtapose the innocence of youth with the desire for independence… all sprawled across nine minutes in length. These boys have gone a far way from “My Girl”; this song is terrifying.
1) “My Cherie Amour” (#32)
There’s no way that my love for sweet, innocence love songs would remain absent from this top six anytime soon. Indeed, “My Cherie Amour” is one of the finest love songs ever recorded, that case being set by Stevie Wonder, one of the greatest vocalists ever. And it’s a solid love song simply because it’s not a love song – rather, the themes more follow the case of a romance that is possibly unrequited. We never hear the subject’s side of the story, but it’s clear that the feelings that Wonder expresses through his words are some that anyone who’s had special feelings for someone could relate to: “I’ve been near you, but you never notice me”. While some songs I wish were so much longer, I think “My Cherie Amour”, in all its brief simplicity, is the perfect length, climaxing at just the right moments and fading out in lovely, vague uncertainty. This probably isn’t the “best” song on this list, but it’s certainly touched my heart the most.