The Problem With Lists

Whenever you set about making a list which has lofty goals — e.g. “Top 10 Songs That Defined The 60s“, you have to careful about the criteria.  On the aforementioned video, the listmaker used both record sales and influence on music as the primary characteristics for inclusion on the list.  Here’s the choice, as formulated:

10. Hit The Road Jack — Ray Charles (’61)
9. Mrs. Robinson — Simon & Garfunkel (’68)
8. You Really Got Me — Kinks (’64)
7. Respect — Aretha Franklin (’67)
6. Like A Rolling Stone — Bob Dylan (’65)
5. My Generation — The Who (’65)
4. Good Vibrations — Beach Boys (’66)
3. Satisfaction — Rolling Stones (’65)
2. All Along The Watchtower — Jimi Hendrix (’68)
1. I Wanna Hold Your Hand — Beatles (’63)

With honorable mentions of:

Stand By Me – Ben E. King (’61)
Be My Baby – Ronettes (’63)
Heard It Through The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye (’68)
Light My Fire – Doors (’67)
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield (’67)

The problem with this list — and by the way, I don’t have any argument over the worth of the songs because they’re all excellent — is that I’m not sure how much the R&B numbers (e.g. Ray Charles and Aretha) influenced music, per se, because R&B hadn’t really changed much since the 1950s (e.g. The Platters) and it was only when James Brown’s funk and later, bebop came on the scene that the R&B genre started to change radically.  (The really big change to R&B had already happened, with Elvis using R&B to ginger up the early rock ‘n roll music and getting White people to listen to it.)

The biggest problem with the list, though, is the concatenation of “record sales / popularity” (which is an easy measure) and “influence” (which isn’t easy).  Using just sales, for instance, we’d have to include songs like Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly, Percy Faith’s Theme from ‘A Summer Place’ and the Four Seasons’ Big Girls Don’t Cry, all smash hits in the 1960s, but not influential songs by any measure.

Here’s an example of my confusion.  Simon & Garfunkel were simply folksingers (albeit brilliant ones), and even the brilliant Mrs. Robinson wasn’t that different from other songs of that genre, before or since.  Paul Simon would later be a major change agent in music, but S&G, not so much.

The two songs on the list which stand out as not only popular but also influencers are of course I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Good Vibrations, both of which changed the way other musicians started to compose and play.  The fact that they were also hugely popular merely emphasizes what giant songs they were.  Using that criterion, there would be a very strong case to put the 1967 Beatles’ A Day In The Life (the song and the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album) onto the list — because having already influenced modern rock music once in 1963, the Beatles went ahead and changed its direction again, in 1967.

Likewise, the inclusion of Satisfaction and My Generation makes sense because they weren’t much songs as they were generational counter-culture anthems and they too set the stage for others to follow.  (Despite my dislike of both bands, it’s quite likely that without The Who and the Stones there would have been no punk music, for example.  That’s “influence” for you.)

I also have my doubts about All Along The Watchtower because while it is quite easily one of my favorite rock songs of all time, all Hendrix did was make a Dylan song sound good (not a difficult task, by the way).  Jimi’s music was so different and so iconic that his would-be successors (e.g. Stevie Ray Vaughan) simply covered his songs.  Yes, Hendrix changed the way people played music, but I challenge anyone to point to a modern song of which you can say, “Aha!  That sounds like Hendrix!” (although I will allow that Lenny Kravitz has come awfully close on occasion, as did Prince).

So if you were to ask me to draw up my  list of 12 Songs Which Defined the 1960s, it would look like this, but ranked in no specific order:

  • Good Times Bad Times — Led Zeppelin (68) — OR — Whole Lotta Love (69) because Zep practically defined hard rock for future musicians.  Granted, they came right at the end of the 60s, but the point of the 1960s was that it set up the next decade’s music (and beyond).
  • I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Good Vibrations — no argument from me on those two;  the Beatles song established pop music and Good Vibrations was a forerunner for other neo-orchestral songs which followed, such as Bohemian Rhapsody.
  • A Day In The Life — for reasons as stated above.
  • Ditto Satisfaction and My Generation, which dirtied up the clean Beatle-esque songs of the 60s and reminded us that at its heart, rock ‘n roll isn’t pretty.  (By the way, if we use record sales as a criterion, Honky Tonk Woman — a much better song, in my opinion — outsold Satisfaction by far, but the latter is the more important song.)
  • Whiter Shade of Pale — Procol Harum (’67) turned rock progressive.
  • (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay — Otis Redding (’67) turned R&B into Soul.  Without Otis, artists such as Bill Withers, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex and maybe even Marvin Gaye might not have been as big as they were.
  • You Really Got Me — The Kinks (’65). Still heavy, even today.
  • Like A Rolling Stone — Bob Dylan (’65).  Hate his voice, love the music.
  • Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? — Chicago (’69).  Like Sergeant Pepper’s, you could pick just about any song off Chicago’s first album to put on this list.  (Jimi Hendrix’s comment to the band:  “Your horns are like a set of lungs and your guitarist’s better than me.”  ‘Nuff said.)
  • White Room — Cream (’68).  No list of musical influencers of the 1960s would be complete without Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.

Honorable mentions:

  • Space Oddity — David Bowie (’69) although his real influence would come in the next decade (a story for another time).
  • Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag — James Brown (’65)… now he changed R&B.  Without him, no Earth, Wind & Fire, for example.
  • River Deep, Mountain High — Hellooo Tina (’66)
  • Funk #48 — James Gang (’69).  Like many of the musicians in the above bands, Joe Walsh probably influenced more bands than he’d care to admit.  We’ll look at him in greater depth when I get round to doing this for the 1970s.

I should point out that I don’t necessarily like all the songs listed above, but I can’t deny their influence on the 1960s.

Your arguments and invective are, as always, welcome in Comments,


  1. A Latin influence perennially surfaces in American popular music. I’d say Carlos Santana started it off for rock, and Black Magic Woman was probably the song.

    Speaking of Chicago, there’s a Russian Chicago cover band that’s pretty good:

    An lot of people made Dylan songs sound good. The fact that Jimi Hendrix and Richie Havens could both do that for All Along the Watchtower in such different ways reinforces your point about how good a lot of his music was.

    1. There is a girl who does some songs with that Chicago cover group:
      Her version of “Satisfaction” is very good. Her voice fits the song, and her visual performance in the studio is a good match. So far, I rate this as her best song. BTW, I’m not a big Rolling Stone fan, but this is good!

  2. No mention of Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, or The Monkeys. Okay, maybe the latter two are derivative, but Steppenwolf must’ve had some influence. Then there’s Creedence Clearwater Revival and Crosby Stills Nash & Young.

  3. Of the various “honorable mention” lists I find it incredible that none of them – either here or on the video – include the song that the video closed with:
    Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”!

      1. “Artist: Roy Orbison
        Album: Orbisongs
        Released: 1965
        Genre: Pop
        Nominations: MTV Video Music Award for Best Stage Performance”

        Or, was it a 70’s forward pass?

  4. Can’t really argue with your choices or logic, except to say that I’m 180 degrees out from you on The Beatles vs Rolling Stones and the Who.

    I recognize the influence the Liverpool Lot had on music, but I can’t really stand to listen to any of their songs. (except for My Guitar Gently Weeps. Probably because it was written and sung by Harrison with Clapton on guitar, keeping Lennon in the background, which is where I prefer him, unseen and preferably unheard. Yes, I do hold a grudge for Imagine).

    On the other hand I have most of the major and several of the minor albums released by the Stones and the Who. Both are regular parts of my playlists and I tend to crank the radio up when one of them come on.

  5. Pedantic comment of the day: Their name was Who, not The Who, even though that’s what everyone calls them (otherwise it wouldn’t be pedantic, would it?).

    While I can’t deny that Funk #48 was a necessary predecessor, I still prefer Funk #49 for it’s variety.

  6. Your list is much better but I am a social critic not a music critic so I have some differences. I will ignore the fact that your list ignores the (better) half of the country that was listening to country. Good Vibrations was important musically but not so much as socially. Lose it. You Really Got Me wasn’t even the best Kinks song. An Anglophile like you should know that I Wanna Hold Your Hand wasn’t the first big Beatles hit but simply the first in the US. Love Me Do or She Loves You would be better for Early Beatles. Day in the Life definitely belongs there for the reasons you stated. Dylan belongs there too but the song should be Subterranean Homesick Blues (you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows). Acid rock gets ignored. Either Light My Fire or White Rabbit belongs on the list. I agree with the comment above about Santana.

    1. See how difficult this list business is? The question isn’t which was the band’s best song (e,g, Kinks: You Really Got Me vs. Lola, or the Stones: Satisfaction vs. Honky Tonk Woman) but which one was more important. Love Me Do hardly got anywhere because it was just a pop ditty. (I’ll agree with She Loves You because it opened with a chorus, thus changing the rules for the genre — the same goes for Good Vibrations, which stopped the “surfing music” genre dead in its tracks.)
      And forgive me, but without Sgt. Peppers, there would have been no acid rock. People forget.

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