It’s difficult to talk about what constitutes good music in 1966 because it wears many different hats. Some of the best songs of 1966 are pop songs, but others are folk songs, and one or two are even jazzy.
So, what makes for good music in 1966? The sixties was a decade that saw many changes. Oftentimes artists tackled current events in their music, meaning they had extra resonance and longevity. But some are simply love songs, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.
Let’s have a look at the best songs from 1966.
“California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas
The couple behind The Mamas and the Papas wrote ‘California Dreamin’ during an abnormally cold New York winter. Michelle Phillips was homesick for California, and John Phillips spent his days composing melodies.
It was the perfect storm for creating one of the best songs of 1966.
“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys
You can’t discuss good music from 1966 without mentioning The Beach Boys.
The band had multiple hits that year, but ‘Good Vibrations’ is one of the best-known. Much of that has to do with its catchy melody.
But “Good Vibrations” also has the distinction of featuring on the television show Lost, where the chorus played a vital part in one of the season finales.
“Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones is another cornerstone of good music from 1966. Like many notable artists of the time, they had several hits that year, but one of the highest-scoring on the music charts was “Paint It Black.”
“Paint It Black” is distinctive for its eclectic instrumentalization. Attentive listeners will hear:
- Harmond Organ
Unsurprisingly, the song’s origins come from one of the band members improvising wildly on the sitar. Everyone contributed a phrase or a melodic line, and the result was an unlikely rock ‘n roll success.
“I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel
“I Am A Rock” is another of the best songs from 1966. Written by folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, it’s gentler listening than some of the other songs on this list.
At the song’s heart is a reworking of a famous line by John Donne. But whereas Donne rejects the idea that we can thrive without human connection, Simon and Garfunkel’s speaker says otherwise.
It’s a melancholy song because it turns out Donne knew best. To become an island is to be alone, isolated, and unhappy.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger and Judy Collins
Folk music played a vital part in determining the sound of good music in 1966. The sixties were a time of change, and many musicians used their music to champion causes like
- Civil Rights
- Environmental preservation
- Ending the Vietnam War
This last underpins Pete Seeger’s composition “Turn, Turn, Turn.” This anthem for peace takes The Book of Ecclesiastes as its text. It promises there will be a time for peace, and from the first, it was an audience favorite.
In 1966, Seeger collaborated with Judy Collins on a version of the song that became one of the year’s biggest successes.
“Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles
“Eleanor Rigby” often gets described as a collaboration between Lennon and McCartney, but most of the compositional heavy lifting was done by McCartney.
It marks the beginning of the Beatles' transition from catchy, upbeat pop music to more experimental pieces.
Bizarrely, it initially appeared as the A-Side to “Yellow Submarine.” With its narrative of loneliness and desolation, it's hard to think of anything more antithetical to Star’s jaunty melody about a bright yellow boat.
“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” by Jimmy Ruffin
Another part of good music in 1966 was Mowtown. “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” as sung by Ruffin is an excellent example.
Ruffin was the older brother to the vocal lead of the equally popular sixties group, The Temptations. In “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” he explores the pain and grief of lost love through the musical combination of Mowtown and ballad singing.
“Last Train to Clarksville” by The Monkees
Monkees members Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote “Last Train to Clarksville” in July 1966. A month later, it was one of the best songs of 1966.
It was The Monkees’ debut song, and to ensure its success, it played with the musical conventions that made The Beatles so popular.
But it had serious undertones. The speaker urging his sweetheart to meet him at the train station, perhaps for the last time, is thought by many to be heading off to the Vietnam War.
“You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes
Another example of Mowtown’s contribution to the best songs of 1966 is “You Can’t Hurry Love.”
Sung by The Supremes, the song recalls a mother’s advice to her daughter about the nature of love and romance. Weighty themes anywhere else, but here they’re made fun and catchy. It was The Supremes’ seventh hit and was popular in North America and Britain.
“Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and the Papas
1966 was a good year for The Mamas and the Papas. Another of the best songs of 1966 is their piece, “Monday, Monday.”
Composer John Phillips wanted a song with universal appeal, and when the rest of the band heard the lyrics, they were unconvinced. Listeners everywhere were. As it turned out, few things were as universal as the flat feeling that came with restarting the work week.
“Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel
Paul Simon wrote “Homeward Bound” while waiting for a train at Liverpool Station. At the time, Simon lived in Essex, England.
For him, the song title was twofold. He wanted to return to Essex, but he was also keen to return to New York.
Simon subsequently felt frustrated by the title, which he claimed was unoriginal. But fans loved it. And the simplicity meant “Homeward Bound” stuck in people’s minds. Years later, Peter Carlin repurposed the song title for his biography of Paul Simon.
“Michelle” by Bud Shank
One of the unlikely hits of 1966 was jazz artist Bud Shank’s cover of “Michelle.”
The Beatles wrote “Michelle” in 1965. Earlier in sixty-six, Shank collaborated with The Mamas and The Papas on the alto flute solo for “California Dreamin’,” making his leap from jazz to Beatles riffs more logical than it might seem.
Played with verve and harmonic prowess, Shank’s jazzy rendition of “Michelle” was enormously popular and remains worth listening to today.
“Guantanamera” by The Sandpipers
The lyrics of “Guantanamera” are from a poem by José Martí. In 1929, a Cuban musician, Joseíto Fernandez put the poem to music.
Subsequently, folk artist Pete Seeger found and recorded the song, and their version was what popularized Fernandez's composition for many North Americans.
Its themes of peace and beauty resonated with Americans. The song was so popular that in 1966, already exhausted by the Vietnam War, The Sandpipers did a version. It was a runaway success and became one of the best songs of 1966.
“Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra
“Strangers in the Night” first appeared as part of the film A Man Could Get Killed. It had the much less compelling title “Beddy Bye” and was supposed to be sung by Melina Mercouri.
At the eleventh hour, the film producers changed their minds, reasoning the song would suit a male singer's vocal color better. Frank Sinatra got the song instead, and it became a classic example of good music in 1966.
Sinatra’s warm, crooning vocals matched the lyrics perfectly. Many have sung the song since, but none as memorably or resonantly as Sinatra.
“These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra
Lee Hazelwood, writer of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” said the song had its genesis in a line spoken by Frank Sinatra on a comedy western show.
Despite this, it was Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, who initially sang the song. Released in January 1966, it quickly became one of the best songs of 1966.
It was such a success that many artists performed a version, including
- Billy Ray Cyrus
- Jessica Simpson
The song also appeared in several films and television shows, including
- Austin Powers
- Ocean’s Eight
- Family Guy
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by The Temptations
When discussing good music in 1966, it’s impossible not to mention The Temptations. The group had many hits, and at the time, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” was their most recent.
Written by Norman Whitfield and with lyrics by Edward Holland Jr, the song sat at number 13 on the Billboard 100 for eight consecutive weeks.
Like many sixties-era songs, love is at the thematic core of “Ain’t too Proud to Beg.” The speaker pleads with his partner not to leave as he anticipates. Whether they successfully persuade the person they’re speaking to is unclear.
“I’m A Believer” by The Monkees
“I’m A Believer” was another of the best songs of 1966. As discussed, The Monkees had several hits that year.
Neil Diamond wrote the song, and vocalist Micky Dolenz sang the melody line. Because of its catchy, dance-like beat, the song was an immediate triumph for The Monkees. Released at the beginning of December 1966, it sat on the billboard charts for Britain and North America into the start of 1967.
“When A Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge
Another essential aspect of good music in 1966 was R&B music. “When A Man Loves A Woman” hit the charts in 1966 and was an instant rock ‘n roll hit. Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright wrote it.
Not only did it succeed on North America’s Billboard charts, but “When A Man Loves A Woman” also scored highly on the R&B singles charts.
Like so many hits, the song came about by accident. Lewis was improvising on an organ with different musical riffs when the melody hit him. They were practicing for a dance, but when the rehearsal ended, he went home and recorded what became the melody of “When A Man Loves A Woman.”
Afterward, he handed it to Wright, who composed the lyrics with similar rapidity.
“Daydream” by The Lovin’ Spoonful
“Daydream” was written by John Sebastien for his band The Lovin’ Spoonfuls. It pays deliberate homage to The Supremes’ hit song “Baby Love.” It also takes inspiration from The Beatles’ song “Black Magic.”
But the inspiration wasn’t one-way-only. When Paul McCartney wrote “Good Day Sunshine,’ he used “Daydream” for musical inspiration.
“Friday On My Mind” by The Easybeats
Another of the best songs of 1966 comes from the Australian rock group The Easybeats.
Written by George Young and Harry Vanda, the song’s perspective on the tedium of the work week quickly termed it a “working class anthem.”
But neither Vanda nor Young was thinking about class when composing the piece. Instead, it was more about their outlook on the world at large. That they stumbled into an effective class commentary was a happy accident.
“Working In The Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey
Allen Toussant wrote “Working In The Coal Mine” after he returned from Vietnam. Following the war, he started a record company in New Orleans. “Working In The Coal Mine,” as sung by Lee Dorsey was one of the first songs Toussant wrote and produced.
Its refrain, tackling the unsustainability of undervaluing and paying workers to do the incredibly demanding job, struck a chord in listeners. Although neither Toussant nor Dorsey knew the first thing about mining, the song resonated and became one of the best songs of 1966.
“River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner
“River Deep, Mountain High” is another example of good music from 1966. Written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich, the composers actively sought out Turner to sing the song.
But Ike Turner also wanted attribution. Eventually, the deal Spector struck released the singers from their existing contract and freed them to work with Spector.
The song was immediately popular. Famously, it captivated Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys on his first listen.
“Shapes of Things” by The Yardbirds
Like many sixties-era songs, “Shapes of Things” embraces pro-environment and anti-war themes in its lyrics.
It’s also distinctive for its sound. The use of a feedback-looped guitar contributes to its idiomatically Eastern tonality. To produce this experimental sound, guitarist Jeff Becks bent his guitar strings and focused on the resonant points of the instrument.
Its unlikely success contributed significantly to the later work of
- Paul McCartney
- Jimmy Hendrix
“A Well-Respected Man” by The Kinks
Not only is “A Well-Respected Man” a stand-out example of good music in 1966, but it’s also one of The Kinks’ best-known songs.
The title is unwittingly clever. What would otherwise be a complimentary phrase becomes, in The Kinks’ hands, a wry and satirical commentary on society, especially its upper echelons.
Unsurprisingly, the inspiration for “A Well-Respected Man” owes to a holiday compers Davies took at a posh holiday retreat.
“A Groovy Kind of Love” by The Mindbenders
Despite being one of the best songs of 1966, the melody for “A Groovy Kind of Love” is much older. It was written by Muzio Clementi.
Toni Wine and Carol Bayer added the lyrics that made the song a hit and revamped the melody so that it fit the popular music conventions of the time. But at its core, the song is classical, which may explain its continued popularity.
“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield
Not many people recognize “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te).” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” on the other hand, is its much better-known English equivalent.
It became a hit in 1966 when Dusty Springfield sang the English-language version. It was also one of Springfield’s most successful songs. Everyone in North America and Britain loved it.
It was so popular that in 1970, Elvis Presley recorded a version. But Springfield’s remains the rendition of the song most people recognize.
“Sloop John B” by The Beach Boys
Finally, The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” is an excellent example of good music in 1966.
It’s an unlikely candidate for one of the best songs of 1966 because it started as a folk song from Nassau. You can still hear the Calypso influence in the song’s rhythms and beats.
But Brian Wilson took most of his influence from The Kingston Trio’s adaptation of the melody, called ‘The Wreck of the Sloop John B.” Wilson updated the chord progressions and tweaked the harmonies. It became catchier and less folksy.
It was the right move. Today, when discussing “The Sloop John B” it’s The Beach Boys people immediately think of.
Top Songs From 1966, Final Thoughts
1966 was a fascinating year in music. The best songs of 1966 range from folk to jazz to R&B. No two songs are the same.
That’s as it should be because 1966 was at the epicenter of major cultural and political changes. The best artists capitalized on that and incorporated those themes into their music. As a result, many top songs from 1966 are full of powerful, often life-affirming messages. No wonder it continues to resonate with listeners today.