History records 1968 as a year of turmoil; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Prague Spring, the Paris riots, and worldwide student protests as Vietnam rolled on. But you wouldn’t know this from the year’s big pop hits and that’s our business here (the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” isn’t released as a single in the UK and in the US it barely grazes the top 50).
The thirty tracks here comprise of monster hits in either the UK, or Stateside, or both, plus one that slipped by unnoticed at the time but has become a classic over the years, The Flirtations’ “Nothing But a Heartache”.
As usual in the world of pop, it’s a rum old mix; good time pop and rock party favourites rub shoulders with Motown and soul classics, psychedelia, Baroque reworkings (“Classical Gas” and “Love is Blue”, the latter being the second biggest single of the year in the US), film themes, songs that catch on with the older generation (“This Guy’s in Love With You” and “What a Wonderful World”) and Jimmy Webb’s bizarre description-defying mini-epic “MacArthur Park” sung by actor Richard Harris.
The year’s masterpiece, in my humble opinion, is Aretha Franklin’s working of Bacharach and David’s “I Say a Little Prayer”, quite simply, one of the top five singles of all time. Actually, this isn’t an opinion, it’s a FACT. One of my earliest memories is of going to breakfast in a huge restaurant at a Butlin’s holiday camp in September 1968 and hearing the song being played over the radio. Over the decades I’d imagined I’d invented the memory as I was only three and a half at the time, but go and Google when Aretha took this into the UK chart…
Into the masterpiece bracket you can also add The Stones’ malevolent yet majestic “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, Marvin Gay’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and Otis Reading’s “Dock of the Bay”, which would have been a wistful classic anytime, but was loaded with poignancy by his tragic death just days after recording it.
I give the Beach Boys two tracks, because, well, how can you choose between “Darlin’” and “Do It Again”? I even had to drop The Kinks’ “Days” and The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” from the final cut as an indication of how great the quality is.
But 1968 also marks the year where the album begins to take prominence, at least among the rock-buying age group, and we’ll examine the year’s big albums in another list. Thanks for listening.