Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 for 1964 is such an embarrassment of riches that even taking a full tenth of it (and more, with the artists who share multiple songs per slot) leaves out dozens of perfect and near-perfect singles. With its rocking organ backing track and vocals so unintelligible they led to a lengthy FBI investigation for obscenity (that fortunately never turned up the volume loud enough to hear the drummer shouting “shit!” when he lost his sticks), the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” is the defining song of the gritty garage-rock sound. While most of mainstream R&B featured scrubbed-clean and polished vocals, the Tams’ Joseph Pope delivered a bluesy performance seemingly worn down by decades of hard living and heartbreak far beyond his thirty years on “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am?,” and Major Lance invested the wordless chorus of “Um Um Um” with equal passion. The Beach Boys tossed off another classic of thrumming surf guitar and immaculate harmonies with “I Get Around,” while the Marketts delivered a Middle Eastern-inflected, almost psychedelic take on the genre with “Out of Bounds.” The Drifters immortalized that year’s hedonistic summer with “Under the Boardwalk,” while Chad and Jeremy captured it with their atmospheric, elegiac “A Summer Song.”
A young Quincy Jones laid a Wall of Sound to make Phil Spector jealous under Lesley Gore’s equally brilliant vocal performance on “You Don’t Own Me.” While doo wop was losing ground to rock and soul, Manfred Mann and Betty Everett showed the genre out the door with two of its towering classics, “Doo Wah Diddy” and “It’s in His Kiss (the Shoop Shoop Song)” (the British Invasion ended as many careers as it started). And the Trashmen took those innocent pop sounds to strange new places with “Surfin’ Bird.” Combining the Rivingtons’ “Papa-Oo-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word” into a frenzy of garage beat, wild-eyed ranting, and sounds that could have come from a dying alien or something stranger still, they managed to get out ahead of both psychedelia and punk years early. And now for the rest…
- Dionne Warwick – Anyone Who Had a Heart/Walk On By
Two of the highlights of a long and fruitful collaboration between Warwick, Hal Davis, and Burt Bacharach, these singles are beautiful showcases for the “Wall of Sound” style of atmospheric, orchestral pop music that was quickly going out of fashion by ‘64. (Bacharach recalls “‘Walk On By’ was the first time I had tried putting two grand pianos on record in the studio.’) “Anyone” expertly sets Warwick’s soprano voice and the even higher voices of her backup singers against the thundering bass that underlines her declarations. As they did with “I Say a Little Prayer,” Bacharach and David show a mastery of the climactic musical swell that puts them right up there with the great Romantic composers of the 1800s. You can see it when everything cuts out except Warwick’s voice and the steady piano and the beating of what sounds like a metronome in “Walk On By,” before speeding up for a jazzy drum break backed up by Warwick’s Fitzgeraldesque vocal. And you can see it in the sharp, high-pitched “so” that opens the chorus of “Anyone” and even more in the soaring bridge: “take – me – in his arms – and- always love me – why won’t you?” And while her work sat in the gap between R&B and “easy listening,” Warwick proves her soul credentials in that same section, repeating the main them with the passion of a gospel shouter. More importantly, these songs prove that “easy listening” doesn’t need to be a putdown, providing rich and mellow soundscapes that a listener can get lost in. To quote a master of the genre, nice ‘n’ easy does it every time.
- The Supremes – Baby Love/Where Did Our Love Go?
Those two are songs out of time, though — by 1964, the center of vocal pop was moving from New York’s Brill Building to the Motown and Stax-Volt labels in Detroit. And while Diana Ross’ voice is every bit as smooth as Warwick’s, Holland and Dozier’s production for them seems almost raggedly minimalist in comparison, emphasizing piercing horns and bells, a single piano, and spare percussion that recalls the clapping hands and stomping feet of a blues club or tent revival. In other words, they’re getting out of the way to emphasize Ross’ swooning, cooing vocals. While her outsized personality often overshadowed the other Supremes, they’re every bit as essential to the success of “Where Did Our Love Go?”, especially that last word, where they provide counterpoint in another key for a unique and beautiful effect, and creating ethereal echoes behind Ross on “Baby Love.” Of the two, “Baby Love” squeaks ahead for one of the most infectious dance rhythms of a year that had no shortage of great ones, but both singles are wonderful showcases for the talents of Diana, Florence, Mary, and the Hitsville studios.
8. The Temptations – The Way You Do the Things You Do
Beatlemania was in full force in ‘64 (more on them later), but we can’t let that overshadow the debut of another all-time great vocal group. While Capitol was encouraging us to Meet the Beatles, Motown extended an invitation to Meet the Temptations, and the boys from Motor City Detroit knew how to make a good enough first impression to stand out next to their cousins from across the pond in Liverpool. “Written” by Smokey Robinson and his Miracles bandmate Bobby Rogers as a game to pass the time to on the tour bus (think the adult equivalent of “The Wheels on the Bus”), the easygoing but insistent groove they laid under it perfectly fits the playful improvisational style. On the bare face of it, though, these lyrics are the cheesiest of cheesy pickup lines, but Eddie Kendricks’ seductive falsetto sells even the silliest rhymes. And he’s ably backed up by the other four Tempts, reaching into the opposite end of their vocal registers for sounds that blur the line between vocal and instrumental.
7. Martha and the Vandellas – Dancing in the Street
With a beat this good, “every guy/grab a girl/everywhere/around the world” isn’t a suggestion, it’s a command. You could chalk it up to the combination of celebratory trombone, crashing percussion, and pounding drum (played by Marvin Gaye himself, the song’s cowriter). But you can’t afford to overlook the raw power of Martha Reeves’ lead vocal. Even in an empty studio, you can hear her whipping up the crowd like a revival preacher. The Civil Rights movement would adopt it years later, which caused no small amount of controversy for poor Martha, until she finally threw up her hands and said “My Lord, it was a party song.” (And the fact that white America interpreted a celebration of dance and universal brotherhood as incitement to riot should tell you all you need to know about this country’s history.)
- The Kinks – You Really Got Me
Though the list has thus far been dominated by soul, ‘64 was, of course, a pivotal year in the development of rock and roll as well. In fact, the raw garage band sound embraced by bands like the Kinks and the Trashmen (and with at least one single, the Beatles as well, as we’ll see later) seemed to leapfrog the sixties rock revolution entirely and skip ahead to the punk movement of a decade later. As those later artists would, Ray Davies’ crew stripped rock down to its barest essentials. In place of classicist pop prettiness, they substituted flat, shouted vocals and brain-dead simple beats. “You Really Got Me” shows far more artistry than craftsmanship: you could, as the punk credo goes, Do It Yourself. But no one else could do it this well. The thumping, humming bassline that pushes the song from good to great came from a combination of Spectoresque engineering and DIY ingenuity: Davies cut up his amplifier’s speaker cone with a razorblade, patched it up with pins and Sellotape and turning it up, as they say, to eleven, and feeding it through another amp turned down to low volume. If inventing a new sound by mutilating your equipment ain’t punk rock, I don’t know what is.
5. The Four Tops – Baby, I Need Your Loving
Looking back across fifty-plus years, the record buyers of 1964 seem almost spoiled. Nowadays we have to wait years for the emergence of an artist with the potential to join the all-time greats, but looking at this chart it’s almost like the record labels of the past were handing them out like candy. Look, for instance, at the Four Tops, who picked up an unfinished instrumental track from Holland-Dozier-Holland and crafted it into the first of their many near-perfect pop hits. We can credit most of their success to the consummately soulful frontman Levi Stubbs. Here, he manages to sound strong and powerful and on the verge of tears all at once. He doesn’t just want your loving, he needs it, and while that might sound like an exaggeration coming from a lesser artist, Stubbs makes it sound like, if anything, an understatement for the deep, life-and-death longing he feels. But this isn’t just a solo act; what launches the song from merely great to classic is the performance of the other three Tops. Their piercing backup vocals on the chorus contrast beautiful with Stubbs’ deep, raw baritone (he would go on to voice the gravel-throated man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors) to haunting effect. Few songs would ever convey this depth of yearning again. But, as luck would have it, one of them just happened to come out the same year…
4. Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, with Astrud Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim – The Girl from Ipanema
Recorded for the legendary Getz/Gilberto LP, “Ipanema” brought together Jobim, the man who introduced the bossa nova to Brazil, with Getz, the man who introduced it to America. Stan “the Sound” Getz with Joao “el Mito” Gilberto – and with his young wife Astrud, the track introduced another mythic figure into music history as well. It’s hard to believe Astrud’s vocals are the first she ever performed in public (she was brought in at the last minute as the only bilingual person on hand). But on the other hand, maybe that explains the soft, easy intimacy she brings to her performance. “Ipanema”’s reputation has taken a hit over the years as it became synonymous with “elevator music,” the kind of dull nothing music that’s designed to be ignored rather than listened to. And while it has been played in many elevators, maybe that’s more a point for it than against it. Of course businesses would choose something this dreamily beautiful to calm down harried office workers; it’s impossible not to feel peaceful listening to it. The record isn’t “exotic” per se — it’s certainly not the kitschy, EPCOT-Centery exoticism of other, less successful attempts to peddle Latin American music to North American listeners. But it creates a misty, moody atmosphere, almost a whole sonic universe, all its own. Joao and Astrud’s almost-whispered vocals, the equally subtle backing from Getz and Jobim’s band, the lulling coastal rhythm, all create an effect that no Yankee musician has yet matched.
3. The Animals – The House of the Rising Sun
“The House of the Rising Sun” creates its own kind of sweaty tropical atmosphere, but one miles away from the dreamy calm of “The Girl from Ipanema” (both figuratively and literally, moving the action from the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to New Orleans’ red light district). The swirling Hammond organ and guitar played over a drumbeat that steadily ramps up like a panicked heartbeat create the feeling of a descent into hell. But it’s Eric Burdon’s guttural, growling howl that sells it. While the softening of the subject matter from prostitution to gambling robs the song of some of its power, Burdon’s delivery gives it right back — with interest. And while it may have been a case of self-censorship in return for sales, the change is appropriate in a way: it’s hard to imagine a voice this soaked in ragged, unshaven manhood singing from a woman’s perspective. Burdon’s something like a missing link between Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits, up until he starts screamin’ like Jay Hawkins. Like the percussion track behind him, Burdon builds in intensity as his character builds in desperation, from the clm, even delivery of a fireside storyteller to the yowl of the damned.
2. Roy Orbison – Oh, Pretty Woman!
Far more cheerful, but no less unforgettable, we have Roy Orbison, backed up with a bassline by Billy Sanford so irresistible it would become the basis for not one, but two, rock classics: the Beatles would tweak it a few years later for the guitar track of “Day Tripper.” He’s ably backed up by Buddy Harman and Paul Garrison’s martial drum beat. And then there’s Orbison’s vocals. He occupied a fairly unique niche in music: the rocker as crooner, with that honey-smooth delivery of his heart-meltingly trembling voice. Instead of letting it get too polished, though, he intercuts it here with a couple of bluesy asides that form the backbone of the track: when he says “Mercy!” in the first verse, you can almost feel his heart racing with the drumbeat, and that “rrrrowwrrr” in the second reverberates through the speakers and all the way through your veins. What really makes this a classic is that it’s not just a simple tale of desire – all from the boy’s perspective, we see him court his lover, lose her, and then…”But wait!” he says, as all the music drops out but the steady thumping of the drums. “What do I see?” he asks as the music begins to swell, “Is she walking back to me?” And then the band starts rocking even harder, building to an ecstatic climax before cutting out again mid-bar, leaving Orbison’s voice to reverberate hauntingly.
1. The Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand (and A Hard Day’s Night, Twist and Shout, She Loves You, et al)
With a staggering nine singles on this year’s Hot 100, the Beatles posed a challenge for this list. How do you do some of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded justice when they have to share a space that was limited to begin with? But, on the other hand, if they’d each been allowed a separate slot, this could have taken over the whole piece. You could just as easily write an article this length on the top ten Beatles hits of the year.
Though they’re primarily remembered today as the King of All Rock Bands, the Beatles’ early incarnation as a proto-Backstreet boy band in matching mop-tops proved they were at least as good at lighter-than-air pop. Above all, they recognized the transcendent power of John and Paul hitting a high note in unison: “Oooh,” on “She Loves You,” the title on “Please Please Me” and of of course that legendary “Hii-ii-ii-iide” on “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” “She Loves You” is almost distilled in its purity, a message of hope conveyed in the simplest, directest possible way: just the repetition of one word (not even a word, depending on what dictionary you got), with such feeling that it’s more cathartic than any of the plays Aristotle was watching when he invented the term.
They straddled the pop and rock genres, using the language of each to enhance the merits of the other. Just listen to how the pure rocking WHAAANNG of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a note so unique biographer Bob Spitz tell us it is neither major nor minor, introduces the sunshiny mood of the song. Like all of their early hits, it’s a song at once sex-soaked and chaste: you can almost hear Paul’s eyebrow waggle when he says “you make me feel alright,” but it’s a very domestic kind of sexuality: instead of hookups and “free love,” it’s the story of a man coming home from work and the woman waiting for him. But none of that makes John’s orgasmic “feeling you holding me tiiiiiiight!/Tiiiiiiight yeah!” any less powerful. And if poor Ringo’s been overlooked, we can’t afford to ignore his essential contribution here, least of all the tak tak tak he introduces in the first chorus.
Just because their music was GOAT bubblegum doesn’t mean the young Beatles hadn’t yet found their rock cred, though. Just look at “Twist and Shout,” which puts the classic hit through a kind of punkish postmodern deconstruction. While not quite as audacious as “Surfin’ Bird,” John Lennon still takes a butcher’s knife to the sock hop standard, snarling and sneering his way through it and becoming more and more frenzied with every repetition of “come on” until he sounds like a victim of Tourette’s. “Twist and Shout” both looks forward to the Sid Viciouses and Johnny Rottens of the world and backwards to the Beatles’ time before the matching haircuts and adoring fans, as a sleazy Hamburg nudie bar band performing a sneering, snarling cover of “Ain’t She Sweet” or their first (local) hit with a hard blues reworking of the even stodgier “My Bonnie.”
With all that said, the single best song on the charts that year was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” one of the purest shots of sheer joy the medium has ever produced. George slams right out of the gate, making his guitar scream with the kind of euphoria you’d hear from the audience of a Beatles concert, while John supplies a rhythm guitar somewhere between the hoarse barking of a dog and the propulsive chugging of a train. From there, John and Paul’s harmonies keep reaching higher and higher in their euphoria. When they slow down for that first bit of the chorus (“And when I touch you/I feel happy/inside”) you might think they need a breather, but they’re really just gearing up to build one high note on top of another until their voices almost burst their throats. This year or any other, it doesn’t get much better than that.