To say that the music of the 1960s is iconic would be an understatement. Rock n’ roll, soul, Motown, folk, and many other genres were at the top of their powers. A list of the best 60s songs could be almost endless. Our list features many that are among the greatest.
Before we get into the songs, here’s a brief overview of the biggest music genres of the 1960s.
Surf rock originated as instrumental dance music in Southern California. It was quite popular until the British Invasion took over the music scene.
The most influential and popular surf group is the Beach Boys. Their vocal harmonies and well-crafted compositions practically define the genre. Other popular surf rock bands include Jan and Dean, The Ventures, and The Champs.
Psychedelic rock is associated with experimental rock sounds, hippie counterculture, and hallucinogenic drug use. It was hugely popular in the latter half of the 60s. Many of the best 60s songs are in this genre.
Many psychedelic rock bands used different instruments, such as sitar, tabla, and harpsichord, and many were influenced by Eastern and Indian music. Along with folk rock, Psychedelic Rock was one of the most recognizable sounds associated with the Summer of Love.
Motown and R&B
Many of the best 60s songs come from Motown, the most popular R&B genre of the 1960s.
Motown began as a Detroit-based record label in the late 50s and early 60s. It grew in worldwide popularity throughout the decade.
Two of Motown Sound’s most influential bands are The Miracles and The Supremes. Other popular Motown and R&B artists include The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and the Jackson Five.
Folk rock emerged as a popular genre in the mid in the 1960s and was popular throughout the decade.
Much of the folk rock movement arose from a group of singer-songwriters influenced by folk musicians of the 1930s. Bob Dylan was one of the most influential songwriters in this mode, along with many popular bands like The Byrds and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Protest music is often similar to folk rock in sound, though it sets itself apart because it always has a social message. Songs in this genre were often born as a reaction to social injustice, cultural changes, and news events. In many cases, the music brought awareness to the younger generation.
Names such as Bob Dylan, Simon, and Garfunkel, The Mamas & the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills & Nash are just a few of the pioneers of the genre.
Now let’s get to the list of the best 60s songs of all time.
The Best 60s Songs of All Time
“Eight Miles High” – The Byrds
Iconic psychedelic rock song “Eight Miles High” was written by Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn (a.k.a. Roger McGuinn), and David Crosby. It was released on March 14, 1966.
The Indian ragas of Ravi Shankar and the spiritual experimentations of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane influenced this far-out pop/rock song.
Though it is often said to be about drugs, the Byrds deny this.
“Where Did Our Love Go” – The Supremes
Written and produced by Motown’s classic songwriting team of Holland–Dozier–Holland, this foundational track is certainly among the best 60s songs.
“Where Did Our Love Go” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart in the United States and held the position for two weeks.
Other Supremes songs that could make this list include “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again.”
“The Sound of Silence” – Simon & Garfunkel
Paul Simon wrote “The Sounds of Silence” over an extended period in 1963 and 1964. It was originally done acoustically, but producer Tom Wilson transformed it into one of the best 60s songs when he added an electric folk rock band behind it.
“All You Need is Love” – The Beatles
1967 is known as the Summer of Love, and this song is the soundtrack for that. It’s difficult to pick just one Beatles song for this, but as far as cultural impact goes, it’s hard to top this one. It premiered on the first worldwide live TV broadcast.
“Ring of Fire” – Johnny Cash
Though rock n’ roll was king in the 1960s, country music produced several of the best 60s songs. One of these is certainly “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. Made into a classic by Johnny Cash, it appears on his 1963 album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
“Ring of Fire” was ranked #4 on CMT’s Hundred Greatest Songs of Country Music in 2003 and #87 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
“Stop In The Name Of Love” – Diana Ross The Supremes
Legendary girl group song “Stop! In the Name of Love” is one of the most recognizable songs of the 60s. Written and produced by famous Motown songwriting crew Holland–Dozier–Holland, it hit the #1 position on the Billboard pop singles chart in the United States.
Billboard named the music #38 on their listing of One Hundred Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time.
“White Room” – Cream
This iconic ’60s song, which was written by Cream bassist Jack Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown, was featured on Cream’s 1968 double album Wheels of Fire. It was released as an edited single in the US, with the full version being released in the UK.
Often considered one of the best 60s songs, it’s best known for its epic intro that is repeated throughout the song.
“Dancing In The Street” – Martha and the Vandellas
“Dancing in the Street” is one of the most famous Motown songs. The memorable track has been covered by many, including David Bowie and Mick Jagger.
Written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter, “Dancing in the Street” was released in 1964 and recorded by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US.
“Cinnamon Girl” – Crazy Horse and Neil Young
Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” was released on his 1969 album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, his first album with the backing band Crazy Horse. The track, which is known for its signature riff, also contains one of the best bridges of all-time (the “ma send me money now” part).
“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” The Animals
The Animals had several popular singles after hitting it big with “House of the Rising Sun,” another one of the best 60s songs. One of them is “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded in 1965.
“Dazed And Confused” – Jake Holmes
“Dazed and Confused” is a track written and performed by American singer-songwriter Jake Holmes in 1967. It can be found on his debut album The Above Ground Sound.
Although some have said it’s a song about a bad acid trip, Holmes says the lyrics are about the breakup of a relationship.
“Alone Again Or” – Love
Baroque pop classic “Alone Again Or” was released on Love’s Forever Changes, which is often considered the best album from 1967. Lyrics like “I could be in love with almost everyone/I think that people are the greatest fun” epitomize the Summer of Love. Arthur Lee, lead songwriter and singer for Love, is one of the unsung heroes of the ’60s.
“I’m A Believer” – The Monkees
The Monkees first recorded Neil Diamond’s classic “I’m a Believer” in 1966. It featured lead vocals by Mickey Dolenz. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and stayed there for seven weeks in late 1966 and early 1967. Like many early Monkees singles, they do not play their own instruments on “I’m a Believer.”
“Light My Fire” – The Doors
The Doors released their iconic self-titled debut album in 1967. It included many popular songs, including “The End,” “Break on Through,” and especially “Light my Fire.” The band’s guitarist Robby Krieger wrote it.
“Venus In Furs” – The Velvet Underground
Many consider the album The Velvet Underground and Nico as the greatest release of the 60s. “Venus in Furs” is one of many songs from the album that could have made this list. It was written by band leader Lou Reed.
The lyrics were very edgy for the time, as they consist of sexual subject matters of sadomasochism, bondage, and submission.
“A Whiter Shade Of Pale” – Procol Harum
One of the biggest songs of the 1960s is Procol Harum’s organ-driven “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” It stayed at #1 on the UK singles chart for six weeks, and even though it wasn’t promoted well in America, it still reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It is said that this was one of John Lennon’s favorite songs.
“Paint It, Black” – the Rolling Stones
One of the first rock n’ roll singles to feature a sitar, the Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” was released in 1966 on their album Aftermath. Guitarist Brian Jones plays the sitar. The very first pop single to contain sitar was the previous year’s “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles.
“Waterloo Sunset” – The Kinks
There are many Kinks songs that could make this, such as “All Day and All of the Night,” “You Really Got Me,” and “Sunny Afternoon,” but this fun, effortless track is among their best. It was released as a single in 1967 and was featured on their album Something Else by the Kinks.
“River Man” – Nick Drake
“River Man,” the second track from Nick Drake‘s critically acclaimed 1969 album Five Leaves Left, is widely considered one of the best 60s songs. The cult singer-songwriter went on to produce even more acclaimed music, including the Pink Moon album.
“The Witch” – The Sonics
The Sonics’ debut album Here Are the Sonics shook the world with its aggressive, almost punk-like songs. “The Witch” is one of the fastest, heaviest songs of the era. It has appeared on several compilation albums, including the 1998 reissue of the classic Nuggets series.
“So Long, Marianne” – Leonard Cohen
Though he’d find more success later in his career, iconic songwriter Leonard Cohen began releasing music in the 1960s. Classic “So Long, Marianne” was featured on his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. It was named #1 on Pitchfork’s 200 Greatest Songs of the 60s.