The year 1966 helped sow the seeds of the counterculture movement in the US and saw thousands of people protesting the Vietnam War effort. It was the first time humans were able to successfully land anything on the moon and saw political unrest around the world.
In the music world, things were increasingly interesting as more new faces appeared and some of the top acts continued their runs of success. In this article, we’ll look at Billboard’s year-end charts to determine the 35 best songs of 1966.
1. California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & the Papas
California Dreamin’ was one of the most important songs in establishing the California sound and was a signal to the world that the 60s counterculture movement was fast approaching. The Mamas & The Papas weren’t the first to record the track, but their version of it is by far the most important. They actually sang the backup roles in the original, but once they recorded it in the lead role, it was all over.
The song itself was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001, and it’s appeared on numerous lists of the greatest tracks of all time. In 1966, when it was released, the song spent 17 weeks on the Hot 100 and rose as high as number four on that chart.
2. 96 Tears – ? and the Mysterians
The band ? And The Mysterians is an amazing name that isn’t the most fun to actually try to read. Their song 96 Tears was one of the very first garage rock hits and was integral to starting the punk rock movement as a whole. In 1966, the track rose to the top of both the Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100 charts.
3. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin
What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted mainly deals with the pain that comes after a romantic breakup, so it should come as no surprise that it resonated with a lot of people and sold tons of copies. The 1966 ballad would eventually rise to number seven on the Hot 100 and number six on the R&B charts, scoring a major win for the Motown act.
4. Last Train to Clarksville – The Monkees
Last Train To Clarksville serves as The Monkees’ debut single release and would later be included on their self-titled album. It would quickly rise on the music charts, eventually taking its place as the number-one song in the US by topping the Hot 100. It would also be the most-played track on their television series years later, a sign of its importance to the group.
5. Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
Reach Out I’ll Be There was the signature song of the Four Tops, and it was one of the best-known hits of the Motown label throughout the 60s. It spent two weeks on top of the R&B and Hot 100 charts in 1966, also reaching the top of the UK Singles Chart and becoming the second single from the Motown label to achieve that feat.
6. These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ – Nancy Sinatra
These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ may be the most iconic song on this entire list—or at least the one that any reader out there has heard at some point in their life. Nancy Sinatra was the first singer to record it, though numerous cover versions would come out later by artists like Billy Ray Cyrus, Jessica Simpson, and even Megadeth. In 1966, her version of the track took the top spot on both the Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart.
7. Cherish – The Association
Cherish was a huge hit for The Association. It spent three weeks at the top of the Hot 100, but it also reached number one in Canada. And while I’m using the original year-end rankings for this list, a revised ranking for 1966 placed it at number two instead of number seven. Interestingly, it took only half an hour to write for Terry Kirkman, but its legacy would live on for much more than that amount of time.
8. Strangers in the Night – Frank Sinatra
Strangers In The Night was originally written for the score of the film A Man Could Get Killed, but—like many of his best-known works—it was made popular by Frank Sinatra. His version of the song reached the top of both the Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, becoming his most commercially successful single at the time. It also won him two Grammy Awards the following year.
9. Kicks – Paul Revere & the Raiders
Kicks was originally written for The Animals, but it was turned down by their lead singer Eric Burdon. Paul Revere & The Raiders eventually picked it up and released it in 1966, finding a hit song that reached the top of the charts in Canada and peaked at number four on the US Hot 100.
10. Ballad of the Green Berets – Sgt. Barry Sadler
Ballad Of The Green Berets has the distinction of being one of the very—very very very—few songs to paint the military in a positive light during the Vietnam War. And despite a lot of dissent at home and negative emotions towards the conflict, the track spent five weeks on top of the Hot 100 and crossed over to top the Easy Listening chart as well. On Cash Box’s year-end rankings, it tied for the top spot with California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & The Papas.
11. Good Lovin’ – The Young Rascals
Good Lovin’ was originally written and recorded in 1965 and was a modest success by making it onto the pop singles chart. The Young Rascals’ version of the track was a much bigger hit. After hearing the original version, they determined it had to be added to their song lists. This was a smart move, as their recording would eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll and was a US number-one hit single.
12. [You’re My] Soul and Inspiration – Righteous Brothers
[You’re My] Soul And Inspiration was the first song Righteous Brothers released after parting ways with their long-time producer Phil Spector. It eventually served as the title track of their 1966 album and rose to the top of the Hot 100 that year.
13. You Can’t Hurry Love – The Supremes
You Can’t Hurry Love served as the second single of The Supremes’ 1966 album The Supremes A’ Go-Go. It was another huge success for the group, rising to the top of the US Hot 100 and peaking at number five on the UK Singles Chart. It additionally has been included on several lists of the greatest girl group songs of all time.
14. Sunny – Bobby Hebb
Sunny is a popular jazz standard that has been recorded and performed by—literally—hundreds of artists over the years. Bobby Hebb took his turn with the song in 1966 and found instant success. It quickly rose to number two on the Hot 100 and earned him a spot on tour with The Beatles that year.
15. See You In September – The Happenings
See You In September was originally performed by The Tempos and that first version would rise to number 23 on the charts in 1959. The Happenings would cover the song in 1966 and find even more success with it, seeing their version rise to number three on the Hot 100.
16. Li’l Red Riding Hood – Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
Li’l Red Riding Hood was adapted from the fairy tale we all know and love. Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs recorded the song in 1966 and earned their second top-10 hit with it when it peaked at number two on the Hot 100. It did have a tough run on the charts though, as two other tracks kept it out of the number-one position.
17. Lightnin’ Strikes – Lou Christie
Lou Christie was one of the principal writers behind Lightnin’ Strikes, and it was an immediate commercial success. It took the top spot in Canada before rising to the top of the US Hot 100 and eventually selling over one million copies en route to earning a gold disc.
18. The Poor Side of Town – Johnny Rivers
The Poor Side Of Town was an important song for Johnny Rivers because it saw him turn away from his rock and roll style in favor of pop ballads. His release of the track netted him a US and Canadian number-one single in 1966, which was an excellent reward for five months of songwriting.
19. Working In The Coal Mine – Lee Dorsey
Working In The Coal Mine eventually became something of a standard song and was originally written by Allen Toussaint. Lee Dorsey recorded the first version of the track in 1966, scoring an international hit that would be covered by other artists for generations. His first version rose to number eight on the Hot 100 and UK Singles Chart, also peaking at number eight on the US R&B chart in 1966.
It would later be included in numerous films and television programs, including Everybody’s All- American in 1988, Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air in 1993, and The Simpsons in 2019.
20. A Groovy Kind of Love – The Mindbenders
Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager took a melody by classical composer Muzio Clementi and turned it into this hit single. The Mindbenders’ version of the song is one of the most successful recordings of it out there, rising to the top of the Hot 100 and taking the number-two spot on the UK Singles Chart. Phil Collins would also record the track in 1988, and it became his only single to top both the US and UK charts.
21. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me – Dusty Springfield
You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me originated as an Italian-language song by Pino Donaggio and Vito Pallavicini, but Dusty Springfield brought the English version to life in 1966. It would go on to become her most successful single, rising to the top of the UK Singles Chart and peaking at number four on the Hot 100. Her version of the track inspired other artists to cover it, with Elvis Presley’s being the most notable international hit version.
22. Sunshine Superman – Donovan
Donovan’s Sunshine Superman is widely considered one of the classics of the 60s. It’s a fun, bright summer sing-along song that just about everyone can get behind and enjoy. The track became his only single to reach the top of the US Hot 100, and after a contractual dispute delayed its release, it eventually peaked at the number two spot in the UK.
23. Born a Woman – Sandy Posey
Born A Woman was an incredibly lucrative song for Sandy Posey. In addition to peaking at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, the track sold over one million copies and earned her a gold disc. She then went on to be nominated for two Grammy Awards for her performance of the song and inspired several cover versions in subsequent years.
24. Monday, Monday – The Mamas & the Papas
While California Dreamin’ was one of the defining songs of the era, Monday, Monday ended up being the only track from The Mamas & The Papas to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100. It achieved this feat in 1966, serving on their setlist for the Monterey Pop Festival and earning them a Grammy Award the following year.
25. Red Rubber Ball – The Cyrkle
Red Rubber Ball isn’t about fun and games, it compares the rising sun of a new and hopefully happier day to a red ball. The Cyrkle’s version of the song sees a man finally leaving an unfulfilling relationship, and it earned them a number-two spot on the Hot 100 in 1966.
26. Born Free – Roger Williams
Born Free was written as the title track for a 1966 film of the same name and was incredibly popular. John Barry and Don Black were the original writers, while Matt Monro recorded the track for the film. While that version never charted, it did win an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Roger Williams recorded the track later on and saw it rise to number seven on the Hot 100 and spend six non-consecutive weeks at the top of the Adult Contemporary chart.
27. Walk Away Renee – The Left Banke
The Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee had an astounding chart run that saw it spend a total of 13 weeks on the US charts. It peaked at number five on the Hot 100 thanks to its unique sound and has been included on lists of the greatest songs of all time for how innovative it was. That being said, the track is the origin of the baroque pop genre we know today—you’re welcome, Lana Del Rey and Panic! At The Disco.
28. Cool Jerk – The Capitols
The Capitols produced the first version of Cool Jerk, and it turned out to be a huge hit song for them. In 1966, the track rose to number two on the R&B chart and number seven on the Hot 100. You probably heard it in the 1992 comedy film Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.
29. B-A-B-Y – Carla Thomas
Carla Thomas recorded the first and most successful version of B-A-B-Y in 1966. Hers was the opening track of her self-titled album and would rise to number 14 on the Hot 100 and number three on the R&B chart.
30. Hanky Panky – Tommy James and the Shondells
Hanky Panky was originally recorded by The Shondells in 1964, but it was reissued in 1966 when the band rebranded into the better-known Tommy James And The Shondells. That version of the song eventually rose to the top of the Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100 charts.
31. When a Man Loves a Woman – Percy Sledge
There have been a lot of artists who have had hits with When A Man Loves A Woman, but Percy Sledge was the first artist to record the song. It has the distinction of being one of the very few tracks to debut at the top of the Hot 100, a feat it nearly mirrored on the US R&B charts that same year. A 1987 reissue of the song was also released to help promote the movie, Platoon.
32. Time Won’t Let Me – The Outsiders
The Outsiders helped found the garage rock sound with their timeless hit Time Won’t Let Me. It was a major hit in the US, rising to number five on the Hot 100 and becoming one of the biggest singles of the year.
33. Bus Stop – The Hollies
Bus Stop was the first song by The Hollies to reach the top 10 in the US. It peaked at the number five spot on the UK Singles Chart and eventually reached the same position on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.
34. Paint It, Black – The Rolling Stones
Paint It Black was one of the most important early hits for The Rolling Stones in the US. It spent two weeks at the top of the Hot 100 and 11 weeks in total on the chart. It also rose to the top of the UK Record Retailer chart that year and would eventually be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame.
35. Summer in the City – The Lovin’ Spoonful
Summer In The City marked the fifth time The Lovin’ Spoonful was able to crack the top five of the US charts. Their folk-rock sound on this one earned them a spot at the top of the chart, the only time they managed to reach that height.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
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