Honorable mention: It’s Not Unusual – Tom Jones (1965)
It’s not unusual to see me cry
Oh, I wanna die
Okay – this cheesy staple of 60s pop can barely be considered blue-eyed soul, but with the way Tom Jones belts those notes, it deserves a mention. He literally drops “I wanna die” and then claps to the cheery beat.
What can I say? The man is a living meme.
6. Tears Dry On Their Own – Amy Winehouse (2007)
All I can ever be to you is the darkness that we knew
and this regret I’ve got accustomed to…
…Amy’s voice soars over twinkling bells and hopeful horns. This track from Back to Black is one of the best examples of Winehouse’s sardonic lyricism.
Originally penned by Winehouse as a yearning slow jam, producer Remi transformed the song into a Motown-inspired track, taking direct inspiration from the Funk Brothers’ backing track to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” And thus, Winehouse’s vividly painful lyrics were set against a hopeful instrumental.
I cannot play myself again
I should just be my own best friend
not fuck myself in the head with stupid men
5. Tears of a Clown – The Miracles (1970)
Smiling in the public eye
but in my lonely room I cry
the tears of a clown
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ paean to Pagliacci, laden with circus-like horns and a cheery 60s harpsichord riff, is the most obvious song to make this list.
The song’s melody was written by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby – however, they couldn’t come up with any lyrics to match. Smokey Robinson was happy to fill in the blanks and the song later became one of his biggest hits.
Also worth checking out is The Miracles’ excellent cover of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, & John” from 1968, a reflection on the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy.
4. My World is Empty Without You – The Supremes (1965)
And each time that darkness falls
It finds me alone with these four walls
Just watch Diana, Mary, and Flo sing about hopelessness with those gorgeous smiles and iconic beaded dresses. If you didn’t speak English, you’d probably assume they were singing a happy love song.
Make sure to listen to the record version too, with its ornate “baroque pop” instrumentation. The world may be empty, but at least this song has a catchy beat.
3. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin (1966)
As I walk this land of broken dreams
I have visions of many things
but happiness is just an illusion
filled with sadness and confusion
One of the most celebrated classics of Motown canon, the lyrics of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” are downright heartwrenching.
The song was originally written for The Spinners, but, resonating with the lyrics, Jimmy Ruffin persuaded the songwriters to let him record it himself. Sung with a swinging, forward-moving beat, Ruffin’s voice is full of pain. Even though he sings of hopelessness, the beat marches forward, assuring us he will find peace of mind someday.
2. Sunny – Bobby Hebb (1966)
Sunny, thank you for the love you’ve brought my way
You gave to me your all and all
Now I feel ten feet tall
Sunny one so true, I love you
With its uplifting feel and sweet and simple lyrics, “Sunny” is one of the greatest songs to come out of the 60s. But the heartbreaking story behind this song makes this song all the more inspiring – Hebb wrote this song after his older brother was murdered, a personal tragedy that took place only a day after JFK’s assassination.
Transforming his grief into something positive, his voice shows more strength in each verse. It’s spiritual, liberating, and captures the very essence of soul music.
1. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – Marvin Gaye (1971)
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
In 1971, Marvin Gaye released a masterpiece, the timeless anthem, “What’s Going On.”
With its smooth sound, gorgeous instrumentation, and political lyrics, “Mercy Mercy Me,” off the same album, follows much the same formula. But although you can hear him faintly praying in the background, lyrically, there’s little hope.
It’s painful listening to Marvin point out all the problems we still haven’t solved in the 50 years since “Mercy Mercy Me” was released: “fish full of mercury,” “radiation under ground and in the sky,” “what about this overcrowded land / how much more abuse from man can she stand?” The song feels more relevant today than ever.
Nevertheless, musically, “Mercy Mercy Me” encourages us to groove and take action rather than wallow in despair.
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