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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Music: Flashback - 1968 -- The Year in Singles Part One

Compiled by Noah Mallin

Wrapping up our trip to 40 years ago, 1968 was a great year for singles. This was true of almost any year in the 60s, even though the album format was starting to become more dominant in rock. There was still a whole mess of soul, country, and other genres best heard on singles, and many rock bands like the Stones and The Beatles were still releasing key songs only as singles:

Here's 1 through 10, in no particular order:

1) Loretta Lynn – "Fist City"
Coal miner's daughter Loretta Lynn was one of country's biggest stars in the 60s, telling it like Her feisty persona is summed by "Fist City" in which she promises the town harlot a one way ticket to the titular town.

2)Marvin Gaye – "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"
One of the great songs in pop history and a song that signified all kinds of things to different listeners. On the face of it a heartbreaking song about discovering infidelity from gossip, the pounding drums and pulsing beat suggested a suffusing dread that seemed to find it's counterpart in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy and the mounting civil unrest of 1968.

3)The Nazz – "Open My Eyes"
Before Todd Rundgren became a solo star in the 70s he was part of garage rockers The Nazz, caught here ripping off the opening riff of The Who's "Can't Explain" red-handed. It hardly matters as they burst into the phased chorus and a glorious bridge that pointed the way to Rundgren's solo work.

4) Sly and The Family Stone – "Everyday People"
Producer Sly Stone was fast becoming hit songwriter Sly Stone as 1967 rolled into 1968. His optimism would begin to curdle into paranoia and dread but "Everyday People" found he and the interracial Family Stone laying out a vision of everyone getting along and doing their thing.

5) Otis Redding – "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay"
By 1968 Otis Redding had become the biggest star on the gritty Memphis label Stax, the antithesis of Detroit polished Motown. Redding's phenomenal voice and delivery and solid songwriting chops ("Respect" was one of his) had taken him right to the brink when an appearance at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967 found him blowing everyone else off the stage. Redding and begun to work in a subtle new direction, melding his raw R & B style to contemplative folk when he died in a plane crash in December of that year at age 26. "Dock of the Bay" was the first and only song reflecting this new direction and suggests the colossus that Redding may have been had he lived. Released posthumously, it stands it's simply one of the greatest pieces of music by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

6)Rolling Stones – "Jumpin’ Jack Flash"
The Stones were eager to soften audiences up for their return to rawness and discard the psychedelic trappings that had cluttered up their previous few releases (though lovely b-side "Child of The Moon" felt much like the rest of that era.) "Jumpin' Jack Flash was a wake-up call, all lean riff from Keith, pumping bass line from Wyman and Jagger's sneering vocals. One of the Stones all time best.

7) Big Brother and The Holding Company – "Piece of My Heart"
The cult of Janis always bothered me a bit as she didn't really bring much new to the table that hadn't already been done by other female singers who just happened to be black (Erma Franklin, the original singer of this song and Aretha's older sister among them.) Yet her voice is undeniable and Big Brother's supercharged arrangement finds quite a bit of Stax in the song.

8) Diana Ross and The Supremes – "Love Child"
The received wisdom is that pop music didn't tackle "serious" subjects until Bob Dylan and The Beatles came along to explore weighty issues -- which of course is utter bullcrap. This isn't to say that "Love Child" is "Blowin' in the Wind" but Diana's pain at having a Daddy who abandoned her and not wanting to make the same mistake spoke directly to plenty of kids.

9) The Maytals – "54-46 (That’s My Number)"
Though still obscure outside the newly independent island nation, Jamaica's music scene had exploded into a creative riot of sound. The Maytals were exponents of ska, which took the beat from American soul and shuffled it up. Later this would all be slowed down into reggae. These guys weren't talking about phone numbers either - 54-46 was Toots Hibbert's prison number.

10) Eddie Floyd – "Big Bird"
"Big Bird" is a stomping hot soul number with a killer guitar lick from Stax sessioner Steve Cropper. It's a prime example of the rawness of the Stax sound in contrast to Motown's expansiveness. There's also a poignancy in his exhortation to the plane to "get on up" beyond the phallic as label-mate Redding's death was still fresh in people's minds.

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