recorded 17 October 1963, London, England
The myth has the Beatles swooping down to save America from its post-JFK malaise, and while that may seem a bit romantic, you can hear the energy of new possibilities all over these songs -- the b-side a summation of everything good about rock, the a-side, specifically written to target American tastes, an ironic prelude to its future. The Fabs had 18 charting singles this year, but these two are forever the banner cries.
recorded May 1964, London, England
Turning folk-blues into dramatic rock gold would become standard practice for British musicians, but these five got there first, at least on the charts; singer Eric Burdon was the first Brit to be heard howling like an American bluesman, and this powerfully sinister epic of regret (at four minutes, twice as long as most singles) wrapped both continents around its classic chord structure and squalling organ.
recorded March 1964, Los Angeles, CA
The Boys had flirted with future glories in '63 ("In My Room"), but "Don't Worry Baby" was the real beginning of Brian Wilson's ascendancy into genius. Not that the other band members were slacking off. This double-sided wonder gives you both sides of a group already beginning its transition: a classic ode to cars and crusin' that borrows from Chuck Berry and surf on the front and a ghostly, emotionally fragile ballad on the flip.
recorded May 1964, Detroit, MI
"Calling out around the world..." Martha and the Vandellas' legendary opening line sounded like a revolution, if only a musical one, and that made it the perfect soundtrack to hot summer nights of uneasiness in these pre-protest years. Add in that horn fanfare on the opening and Martha Reeves' own gospel-trained voice, and you have a song that sounds like a summer anthem but plays like a call to arms. Just ask Mick Jagger.
recorded 8 April 1964, Detroit, MI
"Baby Love" would become the bigger hit this year -- and, some argue, the better song. But that's apples and oranges. This was the song which defined the group's early sound: a ear-catching opening (two boards strung together, and being stomped on), Miss Ross' sultry yet innocent voice (singing lower than she was used to, hence the sexiness), and a sweet but never cloying musical swirl around it all.
recorded May 1964, New York, NY
The Drifters' very last claim to greatness, and arguably the end of New York's reign (at least temporarily) as rock's hometown. A song that builds and improves upon the formula established by "Save The Last Dance For Me" and "Up On The Roof," one which by now seamlessly blended its Latin elements into its Americana and folded the urbane beauty of its arrangement completely into its street smarts.
recorded July 1964, London, England
The song that started heavy metal? It's certainly the song that started hard rock, what with guitarist Dave Davies razoring his amp and jamming needles into it to get that ferocious sound and singer/brother Ray drooling all over the nonexistent ladies in the front row. Forget the awkward solo and concentrate on the sheer wallop of the attack, which seemed rather more, er, menacing than most frat-rock of the day.
recorded June 1964, Nashville, TN
Roy's most famous rocker, built around a stuttering opening that began as an accident and gently gliding into a slick Tex-Mex version of rock. The Big O's elegance hasn't failed him; this is just what he's like when he's at the beginning of a relationship and not its tragic end. And this therefore becomes a fitting end for Orbison's major chart run -- this time, he gets the girl. At the last minute. Mercy!
recorded May 1964, London, England
The most underrated squad in the British Invasion made their mark through understatement: jazzy organ solos, gently menacing grooves, seductive vocals, and the kind of studio polish it'd take other Brits years to attempt. This, their first hit, sums up all those strengths, resulting in one of the genre's most inscrutable, possibly even disturbing, sketches. A mere breakup song? Or a musical confession?
recorded July 1964, New York, NY
More than any other girl group roaming the countryside in the mid-Sixties, the Shangri-Las had the drama thing <i>down</i>. All the evidence you need is in this, one of the all-time bad-boy odes, and a qualified entry in the teen tragedy genre, to boot. The arrangement and concept might seem campy now, but the girls' deadly seriousness lets you know they're playing this one for keeps. Lookoutlookoutlookout!