Why is Sixties music distinct? What makes ‘classic rock’ classic? There are several reasons, but, to me, the most compelling is its capacity to unify a generation. When these songs came out, every kid listened to them, and since I was one of those kids I knew their power intimately. We regarded the lyrics as a kind of religious text, and the music as a tom-tom communicating in a way that adults could barely understand. There’s no equivalent today. No song by Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, or Eminem has the capacity to move an entire generation. The niche-ifying of pop music has made it impossible for any lyric or melody to serve a unifying function; instead, young people are divided into networks, identities, and cliques. This is why the music of the Sixties remains special, even magical. It’s a reminder of what once existed and has since been lost. The songs in this playlist all have that resonant quality, at least they do to me––and to you, too, I hope.
They demand to be heard in toto.
Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan
To my mind this is the greatest Dylan album because it features his most potent love songs, including “Just Like a Woman” and the epic “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” written for his first wife, Sara Lownds. Highway 61 Revisited is the more formative Dylan record, featuring his first worldwide hit, “Like a Rolling Stone.” But if you favor devotion over spite, Blonde on Blonde is the disc for you.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles
The best-selling album of the ‘60s. Think of it as a very long single, because the cuts are meant to be heard without pauses. Yet each number is set in a different musical style, so there’s no consistency, just a set of changes. Mutability is the key ingredient in hippie culture, and the Beatles captured it long before David Bowie turned it into kabuki. In 1967, this album could be heard from every window. It was the tom-tom of my generation.
Tommy, the Who
Officially the first rock opera, it’s more like a narrative song cycle, a bit noisier than Schubert’s Winterreise. Tommy set the standard for anthemic rock, from Pink Floyd to Queen. I prefer earlier Who songs, including the remarkably nasty “Substitute” (“Substitute you for my mum, at least I’ll get my washing done”), and the hyper-defiant “My Generation” (“Hope I die before I get old”). I’d call the Who the greatest ‘60s hard-rock band. Please, no death threats from Rolling Stones fans.
Dip into the oeuvre of these masters
One of the best composers of ‘60s music, though not often given his due. Among his many great songs: “Proud Mary,” the prophetic “Bad Moon Rising,” and the eternal plaint of the lowly touring rock band, “Lodi” (“Oh, Lord, stuck in Lodi again.”) This is rock as neo-Americana.
Three major rock poets emerged in Dylan’s wake: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Lou Reed. All of them dealt with the fragility of love, but I think she was the wisest, certainly the most accessible. Her most famous songs, such as “Both Sides Now,” have a melancholy delicacy that stands out from the portentousness of much ‘60s rock. As a setter of fleeting moods, she has no match.
The most potent voice to emerge from rockabilly, Jerry Lee Lewis notwithstanding. As a songwriter, Orbison took the teen-angst idiom and turned it into true anguish. His best known compositions (“Pretty Woman,” “Only the Lonely,” “In Dreams”) are rarely optimistic, but nothing equals the end-of-the-world despair in “It’s Over.” Orbison’s emotionalism breaks the bounds of machismo and let’s us share the heartbreak of being broken by love.
Bob Dylan once called him the best poet in America. Perhaps he was being facetious, but I would argue that Robinson’s lyrics for Motown reach beyond the genres of R&B and rock. I’d say the same about Marvin Gaye. You can draw a line from “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game” to “Sexual Healing” that takes you right to God.
Indispensable, if not indisputable
A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke
Known for his smooth but simmering voice, Cooke was also a great songwriter, and his ballad about hoping for a just world and living in the real one is, in my view, the most moving civil-rights anthem. If this lyric doesn’t touch you, you’ve lost your dreams.
A Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum
There were a lot of over-the-top band names in the ‘60s. Apparently the inspiration for this one was a drug dealer’s cat. Whatever. They threw the whole kitchen sink of arty schmaltz into this song, culminating in a Bach-oid organ bridge that sounded oh-so-baroque. It was a huge hit, showing how close quality and kitsch can be in pop.
Baby Love, the Supremes
You really have to see clips of this group on YouTube in order to appreciate their gracefulness, but even on audio-only Diana Ross’s vocals conjure up billowing silk. She had some duds (“No matter what sign you are, you’re gonna be mine, you are”), but I dare you not to be turned on by her demure yet sensual voice.
Ball and Chain, Janis Joplin
Joplin was the most influential rock vocalist of the ‘60s, a performer whose ability to manifest the pain and frustration of being a woman in those days was riveting. She was also an acute student of the blues, with special props to Bessie Smith. I admire all her music, including her delicate rendition of “Summertime,” but this is her most potent song, and when she sang it at the Monterrey Pop festival it made her a star.
Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones
I’m of two minds about the Stones. They’re brilliant, but prone to stylization, so I recommend their early songs, notably the class-conscious “Playing With Fire” and their first smash hit, “Satisfaction” (as in “I can’t get no…”). But “Gimme Shelter” is, to me, the optimal example of their syncretic skill. Everything works together to showcase Mick Jagger at his brittlest.
Dust in the Wind, Kansas
Of all the metaphysical songs from the karma-conscious ‘60s, I love this one the most. “Don’t hang on…. All your money won’t another minute buy.” I don’t believe we’re only dust in the wind, but this achingly serene ballad almost convinces me that I should burn incense.
Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys
Anything Brian Wilson wrote in 1967 is worth including here, but this was the biggest single of that year. Its use of exotic instruments (such as the theremin) and its evolving melodic themes, which verge on art song, make it the most ambitious of Wilson’s mini-rhapsodies. He never achieved his “teenage hymn to God,” but this qualifies as a hymn to love.
House of the Rising Sun, the Animals
Eric Burden and his group turned this classic ballad about a whorehouse in New Orleans into the most acute British homage to America (and there were many). He’s also responsible for the worst homage: “San Franciscan Nights,” with the cringeworthy line “It’s an American dream, includin’ Indians too.”
I Been Loving You Too Long, Otis Redding
To me, he’s the greatest male vocalist in soul music, though connoisseurs may prefer the more propulsive Wilson Pickett or the master of godly and secular seduction Al Green. The rising scales in this song are gospel derived, but it also embodies romantic ardor, the ultimate pop ideal. The entire Redding repertoire is worth hearing, especially his laconic ballad about black migration and its discontents, “Dock of the Bay.”
Judy Blue Eyes Suite, Crosby, Stills and Nash
A suite it ain’t, but sweet it is. Perhaps the best example of that meandering SoCal idiom of jazzy-folky-druggy music that flourished from the mid to late ‘60s. Skillfully harmonic under the shaggy surface; pure L.A.
In an era of soaring solos, this one by Eric Clapton was the most lofty. Critics more expert than I may prefer “White Room,” but to me the birdlike quality of his guitar is Messiaen without the clamor.
Light My Fire, the Doors
No list of ‘60s music would be complete without it, not just for Jim Morrison’s goading voice, but also for Ray Manzarek’s shimmering keyboard riffs. I also have a soft spot for the rambling poetics of “The End”––ok, I’m a lifelong English major––the only song in rock that seriously explores incest as a theme. (Lou Reed was only kidding.)
Mrs. Robinson, Simon and Garfunkel
In my view, the best Paul Simon songs came later, and the best harmonics by this duo are on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which didn’t appear until 1970. But this is the first Simon lyric to fully display his gift for transforming ordinary images into a language of irony.
Respect, Aretha Franklin
Justly known as the queen of soul music, she sounds restrained compared with the black woman belters of today, but variety of timbre is one of her greatest gifts. This is a song about female empowerment via orgasm (“Whip it to me when you get home”), and the two were often linked in the ‘60s. So expansive is its meaning that Richard Nixon could adopt its signature line: “sock-it-to-me.”
River Deep, Mountain High, Tina Turner
The most ambitious example of producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, a massive agglomeration of instruments in the service of percussive power. Tina Turner was still under the thumb of her husband Ike, but Spector isolated her in the studio, cutting and pasting her voice bar by bar. The result was sampling before its time. The song was a commercial flop, but it helped launch Turner’s solo career.
Say It Loud, I’m Black and Proud, James Brown
The most influential black vocalist of the ‘60s, and in any account the father of funk. Check out “I Feel Good,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” among his manic masterpieces. His precision, agility, and assertiveness are cultural markers of black pride in the ‘60s.
The Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix
This setting of the U.S. national anthem will never be played before a baseball game. Improvised as a wake-up call at the Woodstock festival, it’s the most audacious improv of the ‘60s, evoking the combination of violence and ecstasy that is the dream life of America.
Waterloo Sunset, the Kinks
Ray Davies is an under-sung hero of British rock, and this is my favorite of his songs. There’s something queer in a pre-glam way about a lot of Davies’ music (lend an ear to “Lola”), but this ravishing ballad, sung in the persona of an ordinary bloke ruminating on the beauty of a London late afternoon, is a stunner.
White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane
An obvious choice, with its bolero rhythm as a setting for “Alice in Wonderland” transformed into an acid tale The Airplane are justly remembered for Grace Slick’s neo-Ethel Merman vocals and Jorma Kaukonan’s definitive guitar. To fully groove on most San Francisco bands of the era (i.e. the Grateful Dead), you had to hear them live, but the Airplane sounded best on recordings, and still do.
Wild Thing (multiple versions)
The Jimi Hendrix cover has those swooping chords and his signature louche voice: “I think I love you…but I wanna know for sure.” But check out the original version by the Troggs, one of the crudest (in a good way) British rock bands. As far as I know, theirs is the only rock song that features an ocarina.
Wait! What about Stevie Wonder?
Why isn’t he on this list? Because he didn’t hit his peak as a composer until after the ‘60s. Same with Neil Young.
The ‘60s were really two eras, one before and one during the trauma of Vietnam. These are songs from the innocent years when it was still possible to sing, “You best believe I’m in love, L-U-V.”
Gloria (many versions)
Not the Gloria you hear in church. This is one of the great girl-name songs, written by a young Van Morrison for his group Them, turned into a hit by a Chicago band called Shadows of Knight, and transformed into a mediation on love and faith by Patti Smith. But that was after the ‘60s.
Louie Louie, the Kingsmen
This randy romp is best known for its impossible to comprehend lyrics, which inspired such vivid rumors about their obscene nature that the song was investigated by the FBI. Well, there are no dirty words here, just Jamaican patois, but it has a truly low-down attitude, which is why it may be the most covered tune in rock n’ roll.
Up On the Roof, The Drifters
A tribute to the Brill Building, that edifice on Broadway where the inheritors of the Tin Pan Alley made their mark on rock. “Under the Boardwalk” is its twin brother--two ballads of the slums that convey the ingenuity of city life far better than a standard like “Sidewalks of New York”
Walking in the Rain, the Ronettes
An early Phil Spector masterpiece, sung by the essential girl group of the ‘60s. It features claps of thunder, just in case you don’t get the point. I should also mention “The Leader of the Pack,” by the Shangri-Las, which includes the screech of a motorcycle crash. Subtlety was not the point of girl groups, but that’s why I love them.
What’d I Say, Ray Charles
Technically not of the ‘60s, since it was released in 1959, this song ushered in the decade, with its riffs of pure sexual energy. Is it rock? Is it r&b? Secularized gospel or minimalist jazz? All of the above, rendered by the most eclectic pop stylist of my generation.
Wooly Bully, Sam the Sham
It’s a mystery that a harsh and hairy voice can be so appealing in rock, and that nonsense lyrics such as these can be so enticing. But there’s meaning here. Teaching the Wooly Bully to dance, the advice offered in this song, is civilization and its discontents.
Maybe you disagree with this list. So sue me! Or, better still: enjoy!
Richard Goldstein is the author of “Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s” (Bloomsbury).