Top 10 Songs From 1968
The year between the Summer of Love and Woodstock now seems like a transitional 12 months defined by unrelenting creative freedom before it all turned into tie-dyed caricature. The best songs of 1968 mostly steered clear of the hippie trappings that dominated the two surrounding years. The decade’s most significant bands — including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — made some of their greatest records that year. The best thing about our list of the Top 10 Songs of 1968? The timelessness of the music.
Steppenwolf’s counterculture classic is practically a musical symbol of the late ’60s. The signature opening guitar riff, John Kay’s raspy growl and the idealistic theme of total and uncompromising freedom conjure visions of a parade of bikes roaming endless stretches of gray highway in search of … what was it they were searching for? Ah, the ’60s!
By 1968 Kinks frontman Ray Davies had pushed aside his band’s familiar three-chord garage rock and had replaced it with a more musically lush and ambitious setting. For the next few years, he’d wrap the mores of Victorian England in pastoral tunes that were both nostalgic nods to and sarcastic jabs at his country’s heritage. The Kinks’ fifth album, ‘Something Else,’ tested the waters; ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a full plunge.
‘Piece of My Heart’
Without Janis Joplin, Big Brother & the Holding Company were a lumbering San Francisco blues-rock band that barely distinguished itself within the city’s crowded scene. But Joplin took them to another place, thanks to her big, brawny voice, which conveyed as much joy as it did pain. Their breakthrough hit is a cover of an R&B song made famous by Aretha Franklin’s sister. Joplin took total control of it.
Consisting of half live and half new material, the power trio’s third album, ‘Wheels of Fire,’ falls into place mostly when the band is onstage. But the studio track, hit single and LP opener, ‘White Room,’ delivers one of Cream’s greatest performances, especially in Eric Clapton‘s wah-wah guitar, which rolls more smoothly than Jack Bruce’s labored vocal.
The Rolling Stones were at their peak in 1968 (see No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Songs of 1968). After 1967’s disastrous psychedelic experiment ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request,’ the Stones stripped away the kaleidoscopic imagery and dug in with a new set of blues-inspired songs. Most of the tracks ended up on the great ‘Beggars Banquet’ album. ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ recorded during the sessions, preceded the album by six months.
Recorded during the tense ‘White Album’ sessions (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Songs of 1968), but released as a single a couple of months before, ‘Hey Jude’ finds the Beatles at their most communal in a mostly fractious year. The seven-minute cut was penned by Paul McCartney for John Lennon‘s son, and the entire band temporarily puts away their differences for one of their most popular and joyous songs.
The Band were underground legends before their debut album even came out. They backed Bob Dylan during his controversial and confrontational 1966 British tour and recorded a bunch of songs with him at their house in Woodstock, N.Y. And just like Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding,’ released in late 1967, the Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink’ is rustic Americana shrouded in hippie blowback. ‘The Weight,’ the album’s timeless classic, is still reinvented by new generations of artists 45 years later.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
Even though the Beatles were hugely responsible for the Summer of Love, thanks to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ things weren’t all peace and love for them in 1968. The four members basically served as each other’s backing bands on the double-disc ‘White Album.’ George Harrison‘s sprawling guitar epic is the album’s centerpiece.
Like the Beatles (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Songs From 1968), Hendrix followed up two 1967 masterpieces with a double-album opus that was more challenging, and in a way more audacious, than anything he ever recorded. ‘Electric Ladyland’ is filled with guitar freakouts, studio mind-trips and psychedelic blues excursions. One of the album’s most conventional tracks is also its best, a cover of Dylan’s recent ‘All Along the Watchtower’ that towers above the original.
‘Sympathy for the Devil’
‘Beggars Banquet’ is basically the Stones’ stripped-down reaction to the messy psychedelia of ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request.’ It’s filled with blues covers, songs that sound like blues covers and a heightened sense of menace that would consume the band over the next few years. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is the introduction to all that, a simmering six-minute conga-fueled pot of reputation-stoking darkness that boils over with one of Keith Richards‘ all-time fiercest guitar solos. This is the other side of the Summer of Love.