Few artists were thinking in long-playing terms in 1963. Yes, The Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan, and Spector all put out A-level albums that year. Everyone else was focused exclusively on the hit parade, and the competition was deadly. Along with the aforementioned artists, there were Smokey and Marvin and Roy continuing their lush, soulful onslaught. The Trashmen and Kingsmen made known the rumblings in many an American garage. The Stones, The Supremes, and The Ronettes made their first major statements, and the mighty Darlene Love belted out from more stunning discs than those that actually bore her name. Even Elvis managed to hang on while the new guard raged around him to release one of his last great discs. In a lesser year, any one of the following 45s could have been record of the year. But this is 1963, one of the greatest notches on the Rock & Soul timeline.
20. “Bossa Nova Baby” by Elvis Presley
In the year ruled by Motown, Phil Spector, and the Fab Four, the writing was well on the wall for the man who helped launch the Rock & Roll era so all those upstarts could have their shots. As recently as 1962, Elvis’s recorded output was still pretty consistent, if far poppier than the raw records of his electrifying early days. In 1963, he only managed two truly memorable sides. First up was the radical mood shifter “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise,” which John Lennon supposedly likened to a Bing Crosby record. More interesting was Leiber and Stoller’s frantic “Bossa Nova Baby.” With its freaky percussion, sudden Mariachi horn solo, and lead guitar work out, “Bossa Nova Baby” shined even as an unusually restrained Elvis sounded like a guest on his own record. The following year, he’d release the similar sounding “Viva Las Vegas,” which would be his last decent single until “Suspicious Minds” five years later.
19. “My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels
While the King of Rock & Roll no longer seemed capable of exuding Rock & Roll attitude, a trio of Jersey bad girls were putting out enough snarl for a dozen Elvises. The Angels sound anything but angelic as they purr sexy threats to a letch who hung around to bother the girls every night and say “things that weren’t very nice.” Sorry, sucker, but their beau is back now and you’re gonna get your ass kicked. Peggy Santaglia’s audible smirk as she tells her nasty admirer what’s coming to him lends the song a near sadistic tone, and when she loses control at the end of the record, she sounds like she’s going to dish out the punishment herself. “My Boyfriend’s Back” was apparently originally cut as a demo fro The Shirelles, but it’s hard to imagine those sweethearts working up as much switchblade edge as The Angels do on their slashing hit version.
18. “Pride and Joy” by Marvin Gaye
Speaking of sweet, was anyone sweeter than Marvin Gaye in 1963? Gorgeous to look at and hear, Marvin was a heart melter, and on “Pride and Joy,” he lets you know that you ain’t so bad yourself. Backing up Marvin on this cool cube of finger-snapping soul was a group who’d break out on their own a couple of months later with a hot hit you’ll find occupying the sixth spot of this list.
17. “Pain in My Heart” by Otis Redding
16. “Surfer Girl” / “Little Deuce Coupe” by The Beach Boys
Otis radiated sexuality like the sun. The early Beach Boys’ persona was clean-cut, white and wholesome as a sack of oats. These cats were so square that leader Brian Wilson ripped off a fucking song from Disney’s Pinocchio to create his ’63 hit “Surfer Girl”! But forget those images of him and the boys in their unhip striped shirts. Close your eyes. Listen. That is pure sexual yearning in Brian’s crystal falsetto as he comes “all undone” gazing at the bikini-clad object of his desire. On the flip of this unexpectedly horny ballad is one of The Beach Boys’ best Mike Love-driven boasts. With so much gear-head jargon it barely qualifies as English, “Little Deuce Coupe” shuffles as fast and smooth as its title dragster.
15. “The Nitty Gritty” by Shirley Ellis
From two sides of impeccably produced pop classics, we’re on to primitive composition elevated by transcendent R&B performance. In 1964, Shirley Ellis would make her biggest mark as the singer of the annoying novelty “The Name Game.” A year earlier, she was ripping down the sheet rock with the hypnotic dance disc “The Nitty Gritty.” The lyrics make “Bossa Nova Baby” seem like a Lord Byron ode, but the live vibe and nerve-wracking “double-beatin’” interlude shoot this aural amphetamine straight into the blood stream.
14. “Ruby Baby” by Dion
When The Beach Boys put together their 1965 throwaway Party!, one of the covers that got thrown away was “Ruby Baby.” Perhaps it didn’t make the cut because they knew they just could not recapture the swagger Dion DiMucci achieved on his definitive 1963 version. Dion slowed down The Drifters’ hepped-up hit from 1956, making it sexier… and near threatening in its stalkerish come ons.
13. “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen
Then it all descends into total nonsense, the sound of a moronic teenager banging his head against the wall to that moronic Rock & Roll music, puking utter jibberish. “Bird, bird, bird, bird is the word—papa ooh, mow mow, papa ooh mow mow mow.” The idiotic “Surfer Bird” must be what every Rock & Roll record sounded like to the most disapproving parents. Fuck them. “Surfin’ Bird” is a crazy song designed to drive teenagers totally insane, the complete flip side of Brian Wilson’s intellectual surf music. Steve Wahrer’s drums are a gigantic god fist bashing the bones of fifties conservatism and conformity to dust. Dal Winslow’s clucking vocal does a chicken dance on its grave. Good riddance and long live Rock & Roll.
12. “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals
So Darlene Love makes her first appearance on this list, no matter what the record label reads. Phil Spector had already pulled his manipulative shit on Darlene the previous year when he released her recording of “He’s a Rebel” under The Crystals’ moniker and ended up with the best single of 1962. The session singer was not expecting a solo career at the time and approached the situation as just another gig. “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” was a different story. Though Spector promised this would be the first record credited to Darlene Love, even signing a contract agreeing he’d do just that, he pulled a last minute switcheroo for fear Love’s name would not move as many units as The Crystals’. She was rightfully incensed, but that doesn’t make “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” any less powerful. Darlene testifies that her boyfriend might not be rich, good looking, or successful, but he’s sure good enough for her in a tempestuous voice that could never be mistaken for anyone else’s.
11. “Blowin’ in the Wind” / “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by Bob Dylan
The tempest settles down to an evocative breeze as Bob Dylan lays out a litany of questions he’d refuse to answer himself. Often regarded as one of the key “protest” songs of the sixties, “Blowin’ in the Wind” doesn’t rail against anything in particular (you’d have to look to something like “Masters of War” for evidence of Bob’s unwanted protest-singer status). This is Bob as plainspoken poet, provoking his listeners to fill in the blanks themselves, not to follow. While the uncountable covers and interpretations that followed has taken some of the luster off Dylan’s break through single (break through in terms of influence rather than success, since it wouldn’t chart until Peter, Paul and Mary gave it a spit shine), the same cannot be said for the flip side. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” may be Dylan’s most beautiful song and proof that the big “protest singer” could get just as worked up over matters of the heart as he did over matters of the world.
10. “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” by The Supremes
The Supremes had been bashing away at Motown for two years before they finally shimmied to the vicinity of the top twenty. It’s no secret why “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” did the trick. An unwieldy title notwithstanding, this is a euphoric piece of music, with its pushing at the seams verses and hem-exploding choruses. All the joy that would make The Supremes the biggest American act of the sixties is already apparent in their first serious contender, though my favorite moment of the track has nothing to do with Diana, Mary, or Flo. Dig that moment one minute and fifty seconds into the recording when supporting singers The Four Tops release a unified “Yeeoooooo-AH!” That is everything you could ever want from Rock & Roll packed in a single grunt.
9. “Mickey’s Monkey” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
In the years before Dylan’s influence forced pop lyrics to grow up, dance craze praises like “The Twist,” “The Watusi,” and “Mashed Potato Time” gave the kids something to sing about besides falling in and out of love. Perhaps the greatest of the dance hits was sung by the cat Dylan called “America’s greatest living poet” but written by Motown’s house poets Holland-Dozier-Holland. Still, it is Smokey who makes “Mickey’s Monkey” such a joyful noise, as he spends the opening moments of the track getting his party attendees worked up, then wailing the infectious “Lum-dee-lum-dee-li” chorus. There isn’t much to the song, which never budges from the B-major chord. It’s all in Smokey’s magical performance and Bernstein-like ability to push the Miracles over the edge with their wild call-and-response.
8. “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen
There ain’t much to “Louie Louie” either. Three chords. A bit of garbled slurring. And unlike “Mickey’s Monkey,” there’s no plush production to hang your hat on. In fact, The Kingsmen recorded their landmark cover of Richard Berry’s sea shanty with just three mics, one of them hanging from the ceiling to catch Jack Ely’s vocal. With his lascivious delivery, and all the sounds bleeding hither and thither between mics, it’s no wonder why “Louie Louie” caused such an uproar among those dirty-minded prudes who were convinced Ely was informing the kids that “Every night at ten I lay her again.” The controversy and radio bans and ridiculous panic that greeted “Louie Louie” just pumped up its mystique and helped make it one of Rock & Roll’s definitive records and ground zero for the sixties’ fabulous garage rock scene.
7. “I Wanna Be Your Man” by The Rolling Stones
The garage rock spirit was also alive and well across the water, but unlike The Kingsmen, The Rolling Stones would not fade away after their first big hit. The Stones first pillaged their way into the U.K. top twenty with a song John Lennon and Paul McCartney dashed off after running into Andrew Loog Oldham, who pleaded with the Fabs to throw his band a bone. Mick and Keith were knocked out by how quickly John and Paul completed “I Wanna Be Your Man,” not that the song was exactly the next “She Loves You.” The Beatles thought so little of it that they tossed it to Ringo to caterwaul on their second L.P. As is the case with the previous two songs on this list, the greatness of “I Wanna Be Your Man” completely lies in the delivery. The track opens in a unified shotgun blast, then each Stone steps a few inches apart to distinguish himself with the quality that would make him legendary: Bill’s relentlessly rolling bass line, Charlie’s equally slack and propulsive drumming, Keith’s Chucky Berryized rhythm guitar, Brian’s face-slashing slide, and Mick’s feral barking. In an instant (or at least, in less than two minutes), the guys erased all memories of the limp pop of their debut cover of “Come On.” With the vicious “I Wanna Be Your Man,” The Rolling Stones arrived.
6. “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Once again, we return to the overflowing Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook, and rip out a page to fan the sweat from our faces on a sweltering summer day. July 9, 1963, to be specific. That’s when Martha and the Vandellas put out the record that would boil them over the top of the Motown stable. The wild shuffle of “(Love Is Like a Heat Wave)” gave the group their first top-five entry on the pop charts and their first number one on the R&B charts. Motown was always more sweet soul than crazed, raw R&B, but there’s nothing sweet about Martha Reeves’s unhinged vocal. Her full-on belting put her in a different league from Motown’s poppier chanteuses, such as Diana Ross and Mary Wells. A string of hits nearly as hot inevitably followed.
5. “Not Too Young to Get Married” by Bob B. Soxx & the Bluejeans
Phil Spector’s sound was also generally considered more pop than R&B, and even the producer’s greatest voice considered herself more of a Rock & Roll singers than a rhythm and blues shouter. Could’ve fooled me. From The Wrecking Crews’ overheated back up (which sounds like it was flown in from an old Gary “US” Bonds hit) to Darlene Love’s elated wails, “Not Too Young to Get Married” is an out-of-control R&B smash. The performance and Phil’s signature booming production help spice up the meaning of a song begging to walk the conservatively traditional aisle. When Darlene bawls “I gotta have you now or my heart will break,” you know she’s thinking more about the stuff that goes down on the wedding night than loving, honoring, and obeying.
4. “In Dreams” / “Shahdaroba” by Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison was one of the few great American solo artists of the pre-British Invasion sixties, and like Phil Spector, he’d see his hits dry up shortly after The Beatles’ arrival. But they hadn’t put Cuban heel to U.S. soil yet in ’63, when Roy was still dominating the Billboard charts with some of his greatest hits. His greatest of that year is undoubtedly his first. “In Dreams” is both high-drama and high pop-poetry, the singer expressing the agony of a man in love who can only touch the woman of his dreams after a visit from that candy-colored clown they call the sand man. Upon his realization that his grand romance is nothing more than a nocturnal fantasy, Roy’s cosmic voice rises to a pained pitch. Hearts all around the world split in two. On the B-side, Roy dabbles in Middle-Eastern exotica with the sweeping grandeur of Cindy Walker’s “Shahdaroba” making this single Roy’s most marvelous two-headed monster.
3. “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home” by Darlene Love
After having her star muted by discs released as The Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, in which the far less gifted Bobby Sheen was the ostensible leader of the act, Darlene Love finally got to shine as the featured performer of “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry.” A good slow-rolling R&B ballad, for sure, but it had nothing on hers second solo single. Transcendent is too weak a word to describe “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home,” which inverts the impatience of “Not Too Young to Get Married,” but tempers none of the passion, which flows over the rim a minute and forty seven second into the track when the jolly, piano-tinkling track pauses to catch its breath and Darlene belts from the silence and never stops freaking until it all fades. If happiness could be chemically transformed into music, “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home” would be the song billowing out of the beaker.
2. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” / “This Boy” by The Beatles
And then pop music changed forever. America had resisted the bountiful charms of these four harmonious Brits for a year, even passing them over when presented with the exhilarating “She Loves You.” When The Beatles conjured up the irresistible “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they were finally on the precipice of taking over the world’s biggest pop market. Released in December 1963, the record would zoom up to number one in the U.S. just nine days before they arrived to take over The Ed Sullivan Show and cement their status in the country that would put 17 of their songs in the top forty in 1964 alone! For its historical value, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” deserves a place in the textbooks. For its thrilling musical value, it deserves a place on this list that could have almost as easily gone to “She Loves You.” What truly puts this single over the top for me is it’s double-sided worth. “I’ll Get You,” the flip of “She Loves You,” is a good song. “This Boy” is a great one that shows what The Beatles could do with a ballad. They toy with the clichéd fifties chord progression that held “Earth Angel,” “Angel Baby,” “Duke of Earl,” and a million others together, switching out chords, raising it to a fevered pitch on the bridge, and allowing Lennon to wear his shrieking heart on his sleeve while pretending its all a bit of harmless pastiche (Americans would get a double dose of Rock & Roll when the Capitol single appeared with the stormy “I Saw Her Standing There” on the B-side).
1. “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes
So what could be better than the disc that made The Beatles international superstars? Well, it certainly takes an extraordinary record, one produced with a master’s touch, sung with a skin-rippling combo of coquettish charm and gut-busting honesty, and written so directly that it could be translated into any language. “Be My Baby” is such a single. It is an exemplar of simplicity, as encapsulated in Hal Blaine’s iconic opening drum beat, and an intricate work layered with choral harmonies, heavenly strings, and percussion that sounds like a musical translation of the goose bumps that arise upon the discovery of first love. Ronnie Spector has taken some guff for not being a singer as expert as Darlene Love, but her New Yawk coo conveys the sex and sincerity roiling in Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s song beautifully. And when her voice escalates for the aching “Woah oh oh’s” that say as much as the English-language lyrics, sit down sucker, or you’re gonna faint. In a year glutted with perfect soul, R&B, pop, and Rock & Roll records, “Be My Baby” still stands far out from a magnificent pack.