Here we are, folks. 1967, arguably the year that defined the entire decade. It’s hard not to view this year as the climax the past seven years were all building to, and the remainder of the decade as a comedown from the dizzying whirlwind that was 1967. This was the year of the The March on the Pentagon, of nationwide race riots and the ramping up of the Space Race. Film had a landmark year with classics like The Dirty Dozen, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Most relevant to the topic at hand, ‘67 was also the year of The Monterey Pop Festival, the “Summer of Love”, and the emergence of a new crop of rock experimentalists who would go on to once again redefine popular music and give birth to scores of subgenres. In addition to watershed releases by established acts like The Byrds and The Four Tops and commercial breakthroughs by The Who and Cream, 1967 brought us the debuts of Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd, to name just a few. It was yet another fantastic year for the year-end hot 100, so I won’t waste any more time diving into the crop of classics ‘67 had to deliver. On with the show!
#10: The Easybeats- Friday on My Mind
Much like “Good Lovin’” from last year, this song succeeds largely by virtue of being a flat-out great, great time. In fact, on a nuts-and-bolts level it probably has stronger fundamentals, namely better lyrics (it’s a working stiff’s love song only a few shades shy of “A Hard Day’s Night”) and much more creative guitar work, with some twisty leads that bridge the gap between the sunny, simple beat style of the song and the shaggier psychedelia it was sharing the airwaves with. Ultimately, it’s at the bottom of the best list because it just doesn’t mash that dopamine button quite as effectively as “Good Lovin’”. I’m still a sucker for the sloppy, cheeky garage-rock style, but the melodies feel a bit too subdued to really get me moving the same way. Still, in a year when pop was getting weirder and wilder than ever before, simple pleasures like this song were in shorter supply than usual, and though it’s not the simplest or most pleasurable, “Friday on My Mind” is a burst of energy few other songs in 1967 managed to provide.
#9: The Who- I Can See For Miles
And on the subject of bursts of energy, holy mackerel! Though fools and their money are often given to gushing over the Rolling Stones’ importance to the development of hard rock, if you ask me it’s Acton’s favorite sons who really deserve the most credit for shaping the in-your-face, aggressive style that would go on to be mimicked, exaggerated, and stretched into a hundred different shapes over the next forty-odd years. “I Can See For Miles”, their big stateside breakthrough, is one of the first songs to properly kick ass the way a great rock song ought to. Listen to that power chord/drum combo between each line in the verses (dun-dun, dun-dun, DUN-DUNNNN!!!). Listen to the way Keith Moon stretches that snare roll out over the entire chorus, just building and building the tension until Roger Daltrey hits that last “miiiiiiiiiiiiiles” and the whole thing goes utterly berserk. Even Pete Townshed’s lyric, which centers on a romantic partner’s betrayal of his trust, is focused mostly on projecting complete and total confidence, rising above it all to proudly proclaim his unkillable zest for life. It’s got a bit of an odd, lumpy structure to it, and Daltry is still a few years off from fully growing into his iconic, teenage-wasteland holler, but the band as a whole puts on such a convincing game face here that I’m always feeling myself a little more by the end of the song. There are probably a lot of bands that could have sung this song and made it sound good, but there’s something special about the Who’s ability to make the listener feel like they, too, can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILES. Oh yeah.
#8: The Electric Prunes- I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)
1967 was so enamored with the power of psychedelic drugs that even gnarlier, more paranoid fare like this had genuine crossover appeal. The Electric Prunes, one of the most famous one-hit wonders of the ‘60s, scored big this year with “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night”, a bleary-eyed fever dream of a song that made it all the way to #11 on the charts. And make no mistake, though the lyrics are, strictly speaking, about waking disoriented from a dream of an ex-lover, “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” is as drugged-up and wild as pop music got this year. As far as songs about bad trips go, my personal gold standard is still The Butthole Surfers’ acid-metal shredfest “Who Was In My Room Last Night?”, but given how young psychedelic music as a whole still was in ‘67, The ‘Prunes do an impressive job hitting the right tone of frantic discombobulation, especially in frontman James Lowe’s fearful vocal delivery. The slightly lower-budget production also gives the song a real boost: A Brian Wilson or a Paul McCartney might have gone to the trouble of outlining every sonic detail in silvery hi-fi, but here, producer David Hassinger lets the vocals blur into the cavernous drums and swirling, effects-heavy guitars just enough so the whole thing becomes a sweat-soaked blur of warping, nightmarish sound and energy. It is hurt a bit by the fact that I’d never want to listen to it in an altered state of consciousness (a must for any truly top-shelf psychedelia), but this is still one hippie freakout that’s well worth your time.
#7: Jefferson Airplane- Somebody to Love
Nowadays, Starship (FKA Jefferson Starship (FKA Jefferson Airplane)) are almost as well known for their inability to maintain a consistent lineup and their two full decades of floundering for either commercial success or creative direction as they are for any of their actual musical output. But, for a brief, shining moment in 1967, they were the hottest, hippest gang of acid-heads around, and their two hit singles this year have remained monuments to the vision and optimism of the Free Love era ever since. “White Rabbit” is certainly no slouch, and probably has the slight edge over this one lyrically, but “Somebody to Love” still comes out on top in my eyes. For one, it has an actual hook, and a damn fine one at that, with Grace Slick’s imperious vocal fury matching every bit of the pounding rhythm. It also has a broader appeal outside of psychedelic wooliness that “White Rabbit” doesn’t quite capture: the influence of drugs is still undeniable here, but it’s the kind of full-chested breakup anthem that anyone can connect with, regardless of what substances they consume. I do think the production has aged a bit here and there- the mix is a tad thin overall, and the guitars don’t have quite the wallop I’d prefer them to- but “Somebody to Love” nonetheless has the urgency and potency to more than earn its place in psych-rock history.
#6: Sam & Dave- Soul Man
1967 was a huge year for the Civil Rights Movement, not least of all because it saw the genesis of the Black Panther Party as an influential political presence, and with it the rapid expansion of a black power movement in America. The music world was not unresponsive to this: James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” would just a year later top the R&B charts and make it all the way to the top 10 on the Hot 100. But this year, a young, up-and-coming Stax songwriter named Isaac Hayes beat Brown to the punch with “Soul Man”, one of the first and one of the best black pride anthems of the decade. Inspired by the 12th Street Riots in Detroit earlier that year, Hayes and co-writer David Porter wrote “Soul Man” as a bold and uncompromising, yet still optimistic look at the black experience. The narrator promises his lover that he can rise above adversity and make a better life for the both of them, and the chorus hammers home that he’s proud of his status as a “soul man”. And all of this is well and good, especially if you’re black (which, to be clear, I am not), but even if you couldn’t care less about black pride this song is still a total blast. Every piece of it is hooky and fun: the infectious, energetic vocals, the crisp, funky guitar lines, and the bold horn interjections in the chorus form a triple-threat that’s impossible to resist.
#5: The Beatles- Penny Lane
A borrowed observation from music writer Mark Grondin: The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” has a bit of a Monty Python’s Flying Circus flavor to it. Most Beatles songs are rather cosmopolitan; they feel like citizens of the world before anything else. But on “Penny Lane”, there’s a sense of dry, distinctly British absurdism to the vignettes of the titular suburban shopping district that makes it feel like one of Terry Gilliam’s signature giant feet could descend from the heavens and squash the whole thing at any moment. As one of Paul McCartney’s many character studies, it takes a more lighthearted tone, watching the shopkeepers and locals bustle about their day-to-day lives with a sort of nostalgic bemusement. That nostalgic aspect is important, too: McCartney was trying to capture memories from his own childhood here, and that sense of viewing childlike wonder through the eyes of an adult very much shines through, with the vibrant baroque instrumentation and swaying, cheerful chorus coloring the semi-connected, semi-surreal scenes with a sense of youthful verve. In fact, I’d argue the biggest proof of its success as a celebration of childhood is the fact that when my sister and I were young children, we both loved “Penny Lane”! That big, joyful chorus is an instant singalong moment, just bursting out of the brilliant chordal pivot at the end of the verse. I’ve been listening to this song for damn near 20 years, and only just now realized what a sneakily complex musical moment that is. I don’t know that I’d call it their all-time best single (top 5, perhaps?), but “Penny Lane” is yet another instance of The Beatles leaving the rest of the pop world in the dust.
#4: Aretha Franklin- Respect
This is another one of those songs that hardly needs another serving of praise from anyone. “Respect” is legendary. Aretha is legendary. End of story. But tons of legendary songs by legendary artists came out this year, and I can probably count on one hand the number of them that are better than “Respect”. “Respect” is eternal and unimpeachable because it is about what it is about more wholly and thoroughly than almost any other song, before or since (and yes, that includes the original Otis Redding rendition). Since this song’s release, no one has needed to write any other songs about wanting respect, and anyone who has written one has made damn well sure to approach it from a less direct angle, because if they didn’t, their song would be in competition with “Respect”. And it would lose. The lyrics may say Aretha is “asking” for a little respect, but let’s be real, 20 seconds in it’s plain as day that she is demanding respect, and the “a little” part feels more like intentional understatement than anything else. Franklin herself said it best 50 years after the fact: We all want respect. Everyone, from fast food fry cooks to Silicon Valley tech millionaires, wants to have their basic worth as a human being recognized, wants to be treated like their limited time on this planet has some value. And, as a conduit for that universal, instinctual desire, Aretha Franklin fucking slays. If you could belt like that, no way would your partner’s parents talk trash about you behind your back, no way would your boss make you stay late at the office on a Friday, no way in hell would the bus driver drive off right as you’re running up to the stop. We may not always get the respect we deserve, but for two and a half minutes, Aretha’s right there in our corner, reminding us that we do, in fact, deserve a little respect.
#3: Jackie Wilson- (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher
It’s a damn shame Jackie Wilson has never really gotten his critical due. He certainly hasn’t been lost to time like Joe Hinton or Garnet Mimms, but the combination of his talents never managing to culminate in any universally lauded albums and his singles only sporadically crossing over into the mainstream has left Wilson with the short shrift in far too many critical conversations about early soul. Sure, he may not have consistently had the tunes to back it up, but the man was, inarguably, an incredibly gifted vocalist, which made it all the more special when he got on a track that really let him properly cut loose. “Higher and Higher” is just such a track. Wilson positively erupts across this song, matching the quick pace and energetic music with a hard-edged, bombastic shout that puts almost all his rock contemporaries completely to shame. The lyric, centering around the thrill of newfound love, is fine enough on its own merits, but it’s brought to vibrant life by Wilson’s energy and reckless enthusiasm. It’s a fantastic, hard-rocking soul number, put over the top into classic territory by Wilson’s sheer, unbridled vocal talent.
#2: The Association- Never, My Love
It’s maybe a stretch to call this the greatest love song of the ‘60s, but as far as songs about and for capital-L Love, songs to melt hearts and sway to at proms, “Never, My Love” is damn hard to beat. It’s swooningly romantic, conveying the kind of starry-eyed adoration that could never possibly exist outside of lite soft rock and paperback romance novels: “You wonder if this heart of mine will lose its desire for you/Never, my love” is a line to end all lines. Every time they sing it, I can practically feel my eyes cartoonishly morphing into big red hearts. Who, deep down, doesn’t want to be sung to like this, to be wanted so purely and unconditionally? It’s completely earnest and completely edgeless, which might have been to its detriment if it wasn’t so immaculate. The arrangement and performances are airbrushed and perfectly interlocking, a clockwork machinery of gauzy sentimentality, from the initial five-note guitar phrase that hooks you into each new section to the six-part vocal harmonies that thread through the song with almost inhuman gracefulness. It might be just a little too sugary-sweet for some, but personally, I certainly hope there never comes a time when I grow tired of “Never, My Love”.
#1: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell- Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Arguably the pinnacle of Motown’s early years, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” perfectly embodies everything I adore about the Motown sound. The arrangement is lush and expansive, featuring playful, tapping percussion, an effortlessly groovy bassline, and a sumptuous string section, which all intermingle beautifully courtesy of producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol. Marvin Gaye is in peak form here, winsomely laid-back while still maintaining his signature soulful passion. And, given Gaye’s great performance, it’s no small matter that Tammi Terrell unequivocally steals the show here with a performance that heralded the arrival of a genuine superstar. In contrast to Gaye’s more extroverted, confident charm, Terrell’s delivery is a little more coy, a little more vulnerable, and there’s just enough contrast between the two vocalists to give the song a lot of personality and tonal depth, which helps make up for the fact that, for all intents and purposes, the song is written from a single person’s perspective. Lyrically, it’s a simple song of love and dedication, and the joyous tone and instrumentation both complements this and gives the song appeal beyond mere romance. It works amazingly well as a love song, but the fact that it’s become a perennial favorite for film soundtracks across all genres is, in my eyes, proof of its merit as a jam for any occasion. It’s one of the greatest soul singles of all time, and my favorite hit song of 1967.