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Best 60s Songs: 20 Stone-Cold Classics From Pop’s Golden Decade
List & Guides

Best 60s Songs: 20 Stone-Cold Classics From Pop’s Golden Decade

In the era of Beatles and Monkees, the times certainly were a-changin’ – and the best 60s songs provided a soundtrack like no other.

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Every decade produces a glut of great music, but most serious pop fans would admit there was something particularly special about the 60s. In retrospect, it feels like an especially turbulent decade, with the world coming close to all-out nuclear war over the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the US becoming embroiled in the Vietnam War, but music’s changing trends mirrored the social and political events throughout, with the singles-based pop of the British Invasion gradually giving way to rock’s album-based market. Genres as diverse as soul, psychedelia, folk-rock, metal and even proto-punk surfaced before man finally set foot on the Moon in the summer of 1969, and we pay tribute to this era of relentless change with a countdown of the best 60s songs.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our best 60s songs, below.

20: Tim Buckley: Morning Glory (from ‘Goodbye & Hello’, 1967)

Tim Buckley’s multi-octave vocal range and genre-bending approach to songwriting would probably have made him a major star in the present day, but he only commanded a cult-level fan base during his all-too-brief 28-year lifespan. He’s arguably most revered for the left-field brilliance of 1971’s Starsailor album (featuring the breathtaking Song To The Siren), but his folk-rock masterpiece Goodbye And Hello includes several of the best 60s songs – not least the elegant troubadour ballad Morning Glory.

“Tim stopped you from doing what it was you were doing and demanded you listen to him,” Elektra Records’ Jac Holzman said in a 2022 Record Collector interview. “Goodbye And Hello was his second album and it exceeded anything I could have hoped for – and Tim was only 20 when he made it!”

19: The Stooges: I Wanna Be Your Dog (from ‘The Stooges’, 1969)

The idea of brattish US proto-punks The Stooges appearing in a run-down of the best 60s songs might once have seemed unlikely bearing in mind the fact that their initial pair of Elektra albums, The Stooges and Fun House], sold minimally and were largely overlooked by the contemporary press.

However, Iggy Pop and co had the last laugh. Ever since first-wave UK punks such as Sex Pistols and The Damned began singing The Stooges’ praises, they group have frequently been cited as the world’s first proto-punk act, with artists of varying genres having a crack at covering the best Stooges songs. With its menacing, distortion-heavy guitar intro and stabbing, single-note piano riff, I Wanna Be Your Dog arguably remains their hypnotic benchmark and, as one of the finest moments on The Stooges’ uncompromising self-titled debut album, it has since lent itself to suitably extreme reimaginings by acts as disparate as Slayer, Sonic Youth and R.E.M.

18: Crosby, Stills & Nash: Marrakesh Express (from ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’, 1969)

Singer-songwriters were particularly feted in the late 60s and early 70s, with the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Carole King all rising to prominence. Pooling their star quality, The Byrds’ David Crosby, Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills and The Hollies’ Graham Nash created a sensation as the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, with their self-titled 1969 debut album and 1970’s Déjà Vu (for which they were joined by Neil Young) both moving millions of units. Taken from the former, Nash’s playful Marrakesh Express tapped into the vogue for all things North African that followed The Rolling Stones’ visit to Morocco, in 1967. Quickly becoming one of the best Crosby, Stills & Nash songs, it provided a spirited highlight of CSN’s appearance at the legendary Woodstock Festival of 1969.

17: The Monkees: Last Train To Clarksville (from ‘The Monkees’, 1966)

For years, The Monkees were vilified for being pop’s first “manufactured” band, but they could actually play their instruments, and they continually fought against having session musicians – usually members of Los Angeles’ famous Wrecking Crew – perform on their records. Regardless of the politics, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones put their names to plenty of the best 60s songs, with The Monkees’ debut single, the jangly, Beatles-esque Last Train To Clarksville, clearing a path for the group’s first four albums to top the Billboard 200 during a staggering 18-month period from the summer of 1966 to the tail-end of 1967.

16: Van Morrison: Cyprus Avenue (from ‘Astral Weeks’, 1968)

Van Morrison’s early R&B outfit, Them, recorded several single that left an imprint on the 60s, with Gloria later becoming a garage-rock staple, spawning covers by The Doors, Patti Smith and Eddie And The Hot Rods. The Belfast bard, however, had more ambitious plans for his subsequent solo career. His first single, Brown Eyed Girl, rewarded him with a surprise Billboard Top 10 his, but he really came into his own with 1968’s Astral Weeks: a rich smorgasbord of folk, jazz, classical – and, in the case of its centrepiece, Cyprus Avenue – blues-related stylings which Rolling Stone has described as “the foundation for his legend and a work that continues to captivate musicians and listeners today”.

15: Buffalo Springfield: For What It’s Worth (from ‘Buffalo Springfield’, 1966)

Initially a vehicle for the talents of Stephen Stills, Neil Young and future Poco frontman Richie Furay, Buffalo Springfield had a brief yet memorable career spawning three albums widely cited for fusing folk, rock and psychedelia. The band initially missed the charts with two great Young-penned songs, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing and Burned, but then scored US Top 10 action with one of the best 60s songs: Stephen Stills’ For What It’s Worth.

Famous for its memorable chorus (“Hey, what’s that sound?/Everybody look, what’s going down?”), the urgent For What It’s Worth is often considered an anti-war anthem, but while it can hold its own among the best protest songs, social, rather than military, issues are at its core, as the Sunset Strip riots in LA, in November 1966, inspired Stills to pen the song. These early counterculture-era clashes between police and young people in Hollywood were the result of a strict 10am curfew imposed on the Strip, with young music fans united in the belief that this draconian law infringed on their civil liberties.

14: Love: Alone Again Or (from ‘Forever Changes’, 1967)

Love’s third album, Forever Changes, is one of the few records truly deserving of the over-used epithet “timeless”, as its alluring mixture of semi-acoustic folk-rock with sweeping orchestration and baroque overtones still sounds ahead of its time, well over half a century after its initial release. Frontman Arthur Lee’s preoccupation with what he believed to be his imminent demise added a darker hue to some of the album’s songs, though perhaps the record’s finest moment – and one of the best songs by Arthur Lee’s Love – the glorious, Mariachi-inflected Alone Again Or was penned by the band’s secret weapon, guitarist and vocalist Bryan MacLean, who left the group in shortly after the completion of Forever Changes.

13: Wilson Pickett: In The Midnight Hour (from ‘In The Midnight Hour’, 1965)

Alabama-born Wilson Pickett was a major figure in the development of soul music. He recorded over 50 songs which made the US R&B charts, with many of the best Wilson Pickett songs crossing over to the mainstream Billboard Hot 100 during his mid-to-late 60s heyday.

Pickett’s consummate recordings of Land Of 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally will always sit among the best soul songs, but his first major US hit, In The Midnight Hour – co-written with Booker T & The MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper – still has the energy and presence to amaze. A huge favourite with the UK’s mod scene, the song was later covered by The Jam on their second album, This Is The Modern World, and its infectious appeal has also inspired covers by artists ranging from Roxy Music to San Francisco psych-rockers The Chocolate Watchband.

12: Pink Floyd: See Emily Play (UK single A-side; ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ US album track, 1967)

Though enormously talented, Syd Barrett spent a tragically brief period in the spotlight. Indeed, Pink Floyd’s original frontman only remained part of the group long enough to record three singles and the band’s debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, before the rigours of mainstream fame forced him to withdraw – firstly from the band and then from the music industry altogether.

Nonetheless, Barrett’s time with Pink Floyd bequeathed us some magical music, perhaps no more so than See Emily Play. Later given a boisterous makeover by David Bowie for 1973’s Pin Ups album, the original See Emily Play remains a delightful slice of Lewis Carroll-esque whimsy, and is a bona fide psychedelic pop classic today.

11: Sly & The Family Stone: Everyday People (from ‘Stand!’, 1969)

Sly & The Family Stone’s anthemic Everyday People deserves to sit among the best 60s songs for a whole host of reasons. Firstly, it focused on one of the band’s recurrent themes – peace and equality between differing races and social groups – with help from unity-first lyrics (“I am no better and neither are you/We’re all the same whatever we do”) which haven’t aged a day. Secondly, bassist Larry Graham contends that the song features the first-ever instance of the slap bass technique which would become a funk staple during the 70s (inspiring some of the best 70s basslines as it did so). Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – it remains an absolute belter of a dancefloor-friendly tune, so it seems only just that it provided Sly and co with their first US No.1, early in 1969.

10. David Bowie: Space Oddity (from ‘David Bowie’, 1969)

At the beginning of 1969, David Bowie had six singles and one self-titled album to his name – all of which had flopped. However, his fortunes were about to change thanks to an ambitious new tune he’d written partly in response to Stanley Kubrick’s epic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie’s Space Oddity was released during the summer of 1969, but its progress temporarily stalled when the BBC banned space-themed songs due to NASA’s successful Apollo 11 Moon landing in July of that year.

Also included on David Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, Space Oddity may have missed out while the astronauts were still in space, but Bowie’s heartstring-tugging tale of the missing-in-action Major Tom still resonated with the public. After he performed the song on Top Of The Pops, in September 1969, it shot to No.5, rewarding Bowie with his breakthrough hit and an Ivor Novello award to boot.

9: The Doors: Light My Fire (from ‘The Doors’, 1967)

With its dramatic, Bach-inspired intro, Latin beat and killer chorus, The DoorsLight My Fire is one of those seemingly shatterproof songs which sounds like a classic no matter how many times you hear it. However, while it screams “hit single” at most listeners, its creators were less than convinced by its potential, and were originally intending to follow their debut single, Break On Through (To The Other Side), with another track from their self-titled debut album, 20th Century Fox.

Fortunately, LA-based DJ Dave Diamond persuaded The Doors to create an edit of the seven-minute Light My Fire for radio in the spring of 1967 – after which, the song really did set the night on fire. Released as a single, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and established The Doors as an international rock act, and its inclusion among any self-respecting run-down of the best 60s songs has long since been mandatory.

8: Otis Redding: (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay (from ‘The Dock Of The Bay’, 1968)

Nicknamed the “King Of Soul”, Otis Redding is widely regarded as one of the best soul singers of all time, but a plane crash outside Madison, Wisconsin, in December 1967, when he was aged just 26, brought his reign to a tragically early end.

With help from Steve Cropper, Redding wrote the song with which he’s still most associated, (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Day, shortly after his triumphant performance at the 1967 Monterey Festival. During this period, the singer spent time living on a rented houseboat in Sausalito, California, and this inspired Dock Of The Bay’s nautical theme. Redding then cut the yearning, nostalgic song during his final studio sessions, in November 1967, and it was released just weeks after his death, when it topped the Billboard Hot 100. The first ever posthumous single to reach No.1 on the US charts, its status among the best Otis Redding songs has long been secured.

7: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) (from ‘Electric Ladyland’, 1968)

Stunning sonic innovation sets Jimi Hendrix’s best work apart from that of most of his contemporaries, so the likes of Purple Haze, Burning Of The Midnight Lamp and Hendrix’s sublime version of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower could just as easily have made the cut when it comes to celebrating the best 60s songs.

For sheer hypnotic power alone, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) shades them all. Pretty much everything about this otherworldly song excites – from Hendrix’s percussive, wah-wah pedal intro through to the intensity of the Experience’s rhythmic rumble and the portentous lyric (“If I don’t see you no more in this world/I’ll see you in the next one – don’t be late”). When it all locks together, it forms one of the meanest and most overwhelming rock songs recorded in the 60s or any other decade you care to mention.

6: The Rolling Stones: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (from ‘Out Of Our Heads’, 1965)

For The Rolling Stones, the 60s was a blur of chart-topping singles and landmark recordings, but if you’re out to pin down their most decade-defining song, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction still takes some beating. Mick Jagger’s sexually-frustrated lyric chimed with young people the world over while Keith Richards’ innovative, fuzzbox-enhanced riff has since been imitated by thousands of garage-rock outfits, yet bettered by none.

5: Aretha Franklin: Respect (from ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, 1967)

Penned and originally recorded by Otis Redding, Respect initially cracked the US Billboard Top 40 in 1965, but it really took off in 1967, when soul singer Aretha Franklin covered it, giving it a new arrangement that resulted in it becoming a US No.1 – and a tune more commonly regarded as one of the best Aretha Franklin songs. The music supporting the two versions is significantly different, while a few changes in the lyrics have been interpreted as commentaries on traditional gender roles. In retrospect, both recordings are commendable, but Aretha’s impassioned recording, which opened her landmark I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You album is easily one of the best 60s songs – and it garnered further plaudits during the 70s, when it became an anthem for second-wave feminism.

4: Bob Dylan: Like A Rolling Stone (from ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, 1965)

Michael Gray, author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, has asserted that “the 1960s started” with Like A Rolling Stone, and there’s plenty to support that theory. The opening song on Dylan’s first all-electric album, Highway 61 Revisited, Like A Rolling Stone was unlike anything else that had previously been released under the banner of “pop music”. Though supported by a glorious melody, its lyrics were angry, questing and confrontational, and, clocking in at six minutes, the song was far longer than any single that had come before it. Yet the conventional rules were bulldozed by this mould-breaking tune, which duly rose to No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and influenced everyone from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix on down.

3: The Beatles: Strawberry Fields Forever (single A-side, 1967)

As the hullabaloo surrounding the deluxe reissues of “The White Album” and Abbey Road recently reminded us, no other band embodied the 60s quite like The Beatles, so trying to boil their oeuvre down to one specific song is an exceptionally tall order.

Nonetheless, Strawberry Fields Forever is as good an option as any. The first song The Beatles recorded after they retired from performing live, in late 1966, in order to focus on their studio work, John Lennon’s introspective paean to his childhood days spent playing in the garden of a Salvation Army Children’s Home, in Liverpool, sparked a period of remarkable creativity within the band, culminating in 1967’s universally-acclaimed Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Famously including Mellotron flute sounds, cello and brass, in addition to studio techniques such as tape loops and reverse-recorded instrumentation, Strawberry Fields Forever represented a quantum leap forward from anything The Beatles had previously recorded, and it also proved highly influential on the emerging psychedelic genre – both good reasons why it remains right up there with the very best 60s songs.

2: Led Zeppelin: Whole Lotta Love (from ‘Led Zeppelin II’, 1969)

Led Zeppelin really put what we now refer to as “hard rock” on the map in 1969 – a truly seismic 12-month period during which time they released two massive-selling albums and drew up the blueprint for stadium rock with mammoth live shows which enabled them to pack out ever-bigger arenas in the US and beyond.

Sitting among the best Led Zeppelin songs of them all, Whole Lotta Love also emerged during this first phase, initially opening the Led Zeppelin II album, but then rewarding this famously singles-averse act with a Top 10 US hit in its own right. Indeed, simply for being built on one of the best Jimmy Page guitar riffs, Whole Lotta Love qualifies as one of best 60s songs, but it also made an indelible impression on the next decade, when an instrumental version of the track, cut by CCS, was used as the Top Of The Pops theme tune from November 1970 to July 1977.

1: The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations (single A-side, 1966)

Bearing in mind the competition, something seismic is required to top this list of the best 60s songs, but The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations really is just that. Described by the band’s publicist Derek Taylor as a “pocket symphony”, this phenomenal, multi-layered pop song was composed by Brian Wilson, with flower power-influenced lyrics supplied by Mike Love, and it’s still reputed to be the most expensive single ever recorded.

Grandiosity doesn’t necessarily equate with genius, of course, but in this case, it’s impossible not to marvel at how Wilson and co got Good Vibrations’ daring, multi-layered experimentation (a host of session musicians and four Hollywood studios were utilised) to dovetail with a melodic clarity that not only took the song to the top of the transatlantic charts on its release, but still provides an astonishing listening experience today.

You’ve heard the best 60s songs, now find out the best 60s albums.

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