As Americans commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil this September 11th, djrobblog takes a look back at the four years I consider to be the toughest in America’s modern history. For this purpose, I drew the line at World War II and considered all the years afterwards.
Many of the years that were the best candidates were marked by American turmoil and conflict – both internal and external – or by significant economic crises, tragedies, natural disasters and the like.
The music discussed for each year was in some cases influenced by the events of the year in question. In others, they simply provided the perfect context for a year that had profound impact on our lives and on the nation’s history. A chronological soundtrack if you will.
You may disagree with the years I’ve chosen, or the significance of the music I picked to represent them, and I welcome your comments below. In the meantime, here they are, in order of increasing significance, the four most troubling years for America since 1946…and the music that defined them:
The year 2008 was marred by one of the worst financial crises in American history. The Great Recession, as it became known, officially began in late 2007 and lasted through June 2009. But the brunt of it was felt in 2008. It was characterized by huge losses (trillions of dollars) on the New York stock exchange (which itself was a microcosm of a worldwide financial crisis), high unemployment rates, thousands of business failures and a historic housing market crash that sent homes plummeting to less than half their peak values from earlier in the decade.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel, however. While home prices began to recover in 2010 and unemployment rates slowly turned around, the stock market recovered all of its losses and moved into a historic bull run that hasn’t ended yet (as of this writing in September 2016).
Clearly not every American or every American community is reaping the benefits of the economic turnaround. Many will argue that there has been a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, with people having to hold down multiple lower paying jobs to maintain the standard of living they had with one job before the economic turndown. However, for many Americans, any circumstance would be better than having to relive 2008 all over again.
The music of 2008 was characterized by pop, R&B and hip-hop. The most popular artists that year were Rihanna, Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne, Flo Rida, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, T-Pain and Carrie Underwood. It was a year when pop starlet Taylor Swift was still country, American Idol was still producing hitmakers, and Rihanna and Chris Brown were still an item.
In fact, Rihanna and Brown were killing the charts in 2008, with the two singers combining for ten of the year’s 100 biggest hits in Billboard. But they weren’t alone in their chart dominance. Rapper Lil Wayne and hip-hop singer T-Pain accounted for fifteen of the songs on that year’s list (combining efforts for one of them). That just four names could be found on 25 of the year’s 100 biggest hits gave new context to the term over-saturation.
Some noteworthy musical firsts and lasts also occurred in 2008. It was the year we were introduced to both Katy Perry (“I Kissed A Girl”) and Lady Gaga (“Just Dance”). Uber-producer Timbaland introduced us to the group OneRepublic who gave us “Apologize” by way of a feature on Timbaland’s single. And British singer Leona Lewis achieved mega success with her début American single. Her “Bleeding Love” moved in and out of #1 three different times, making it the first single to do that since 1979 (“Le Freak” by Chic).
Coldplay fell into the first and last category as its “Viva La Vida” became their first and only number one single that year. The band has continued to have success with albums and tours since then.
It was also the year that Mariah Carey’s last number one single, “Touch My Body,” topped the chart, tying her with Elvis Presley for the second-most number-one singles with 18.
Another superstar achieved her last pop #1 single that year. Beyoncé, whose “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” topped the Billboard Hot 100 that December and held into January 2009, hasn’t returned to #1 on that chart since then (although she’s doing just fine on the albums and R&B singles charts, thank you).
Artists we hadn’t yet heard of included Canadians Drake and Justin Bieber, both of whom would début the following year with “Best I Ever Had” and “One Time,” respectively.
The year 1963 was characterized by the still-growing Civil Rights Movement and increasing violence in America. Key events that year included the incarceration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers’ brutal murder at the hands of Ku Klux Klansmen, the historic March on Washington (August 28) and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination that November.
Another key event in 1963 was the bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, resulting in the murders of four young black girls. That “crime against humanity” was dealt at the hands of four Klansmen, none of whom were convicted of the killings until 1977 (with two of them avoiding convictions until 2001) and one of them dying in 1994 without ever being charged with the murders.
That event and others were instrumental in gaining support for the Civil Rights Movement. 1963 was thus the last full year before civil rights became legally recognized after having faced stiff opposition from within Congress all the years prior. It finally happened in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act under Lyndon Johnson’s administration following Kennedy’s death.
Musically, 1963 was a big year for the Four Seasons, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Rick Nelson, Peter Paul & Mary, Bobby Vinton, Brenda Lee, the Crystals, the Chiffons, Jan and Dean, Paul and Paula, and Andy Williams.
Oh, and Motown.
Actually, Motown was still somewhat of a fledgling label at this point in history. Several of its acts were experiencing their first major hits, including Marvin Gaye, whose “Pride and Joy” became his first crossover top-ten hit in 1963. Martha Reeves & the Vandellas hit big for the first time that year with “Heat Wave” and “Quicksand.” It was also the year the “no-hit” Supremes (as they were unaffectionately known within the label) finally reached the top 40 with “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.”
But the Supremes, along with the Motown label’s premier male groups, the legendary Temptations and Four Tops, wouldn’t achieve their first top-20 hits until 1964.
A Motown act who did make it big in 1963 was Little Stevie Wonder. His first hit was the #1 single, “Fingertips, Pt. 2,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart that August, becoming the first of ten #1 hits on the pop charts (and twenty on the R&B lists – the most all-time).
Other big tunes in 1963 were “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, “Surfin U.S.A.” by the Beach Boys, “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, “My Boyfriend’s Back” by Angels, “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March, and “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons.
The Chiffons’ #1 hit would become the subject of litigation with an ex-Beatle eight years later after George Harrison was found guilty of subconsciously stealing the tune’s melody for his own “My Sweet Lord” (also a #1 hit). Interestingly, the Beatles‘ domination of American music and the ensuing British invasion wouldn’t begin until a month after 1963 ended.
Also, on the historical significance front, Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” has many fun facts associated with it. The song originated from an instrumental piece called “Chariot,” written in 1961 by Paul Mariat. Several artists later added vocals to that tune, including Petula Clark, whose “Chariot” charted high in France and other countries. Little Peggy March’s adaptation of “I Will Follow Him” reached #1 in America the following year, making Peggy the youngest female to top the American charts at 15 years of age, just months before Stevie Wonder became the youngest male to do so.
March’s version also topped the R&B chart (making her one of the first white females to achieve that feat), while, ironically, a cover version by R&B singer Dee Dee Sharp reached #1 in Japan. The song was also famously used in the closing performance by the nuns in the motion picture Sister Act in 1992.
In the year’s list of other firsts, Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” became her first big hit and the first hit for producer Quincy Jones. It also topped both the R&B and pop charts that year, continuing a theme of white acts crossing over to R&B territory.
Another act with crossover success was the group Essex, three men fronted by lead female singer Anita Humes. Their huge single “Easier Said Than Done” was recorded in 20 minutes and topped both the pop and R&B charts that July. What many people didn’t know at the time was that the group was all black, as their pictures weren’t pressed on early versions of their releases. This was during the early 1960s when music genres were still polarized by race (actually, when did that stop happening?).
The consistency with which songs were topping both the R&B and pop charts led Billboard magazine to discontinue its R&B charts in November 1963, only to reinstate them a year and a half later. As a result of this questionable decision, historians have had to rely on other sources when researching top charting R&B songs of 1964.
One artist who squeezed in a final #1 R&B single in 1963 before this happened was crooner Sam Cooke. His “Another Saturday Night” topped the R&B list earlier in the year (and peaked at #10 pop). Cooke, who owned his own record label and was prominent in the Civil Rights Movement, was killed in December 1964 by a manager at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, bringing to an abrupt end the life and career of one of music’s greatest crossover legends.
The year 2001 would’ve been most famous for its reference in the classic 1968 film and book, 2001: A Space Odyssey, had it not been for that fateful day in September that would change American life (and lives worldwide) forever. On September 11, terrorists hijacked and redirected three jetliners to targets in New York (World Trade Center Towers 1 & 2) and the DC metropolitan area (the Pentagon). A fourth plane was intended for the U.S. Capitol building in DC, but was thwarted by brave passengers who fought the terrorists before that plane crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3000 people were killed in all, including people at the three hit targets and all of the four planes’ occupants.
Aside from the thousands of lost lives and the permanent alteration of New York’s famous skyline (the two buildings had been the country’s tallest), the terrorist attacks galvanized Americans – if only briefly – with the country launching wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq during the subsequent years. As the U.S. recovered, then-President George W. Bush had his highest approval-ratings yet, only to see them come crashing down as the two wars continued for years to claim American lives and the U. S. economy began to tank.
The events of 9/11 left their mark in the music world as well. Many patriotic songs were recorded in the tragedy’s wake, including several by country artists. Most notable were tunes by Toby Keith, whose controversial “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)” was written in 2001, and released in May of the following year. Aaron Tippin recorded “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly” only days after the attack and had it to radio the following Monday.
“Only Time” by the Irish new age/Celtic/folk artist Enya became a big hit after its use in media coverage of the unfolding 9/11 tragedy. Proceeds from sales of the song were donated to charities associated with 9/11.
Musically, the biggest artists of the year were N’Sync, Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez, Ja Rule, 112, Janet Jackson, Lifehouse, Nelly, Shaggy, Jay-Z, Faith Hill and Usher.
Mega-selling artists N’Sync and Britney Spears continued to blow the lid off CD sales with their respective albums, Celebrity and Britney. The two albums sold a combined 2.5 million copies in their first weeks on the market. With those kind of numbers, no one could’ve predicted that 2001 would be the first year of the 16-year-long demise of the CD. Sales of albums in 2016 represent roughly a quarter of what they did during the 2000 peak.
It was a milestone year for pop and R&B superstar Janet, whose “All For You” became her last number one pop hit – another fate no one saw coming at the time.
An equally significant last for the Jackson family belonged to brother Michael. The mega-singer released Invincible, the last studio album during his lifetime. It featured the singles, “You Rock My World” and “Butterflies,” the last two top-40 hits Jackson had before his death nearly eight years later. (He of course reached the charts in the weeks following his death and with the release of posthumous albums.)
Meanwhile, the R&B world lost one of its next-generation promises when singer/actress Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash in the Caribbean that August, only weeks before 9/11.
Speaking of losses, the music world’s most notable one that year was George Harrison. The former Beatle succumbed to lung and brain cancer in November.
For the second year in a row, the biggest pop chart single of the year was one that didn’t reach #1. Lifehouse, a rock band from Los Angeles, reached #2 with their hit, “Hanging By A Moment.” But the song remained on the chart so long that it wound up outranking all others when the year-end point tally was completed. The previous year, country singer Faith Hill had accomplished the same thing with her huge #2 hit, “Breathe.”
Speaking of country artists, a newcomer to the charts that year was singer Blake Shelton, whose very first single, “Austin,” topped the country charts and became his first Hot 100 single.
In other notable firsts (and lasts), Jamaican reggae fusion rap-singer Shaggy had a big year with two #1 singles: “It Wasn’t Me” (featuring Rik Rok Ducent) and “Angel.” They were his first and last #1 singles. “Angel” was also the last time Shaggy even made the top-40 in America.
And still making noise in 2001 were female rappers. In an era long before Nicki Minaj, three of them accounted for major crossover hits that year, including Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott (with “Get Your Freak On”), Eve (“Let Me Blow Your Mind”) and Lil Kim (in collaboration with Christina Aguilera, Mya and P!nk on the remake of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade”).
Finally, another chart newcomer in 2001 was singer Alicia Keys, who we all heard for the first time with her piano-based ballad “Fallin’.” The plaintive ballad had been #1 in the weeks leading up to the 9/11 attacks, then fell to #2 behind Jennifer Lopez’ “I’m Real.” After 9/11, “Fallin'” returned to #1 to complete a five-week run at the top and wind up as the second-biggest hit of the year. It also launched the career of one of the decade’s most successful stars.
The year 1968 was perhaps the most turbulent in American history. It was a year marred by the assassinations of two revered American figures: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and U.S. Senator and Presidential hopeful Robert Francis Kennedy. The latter was a Democratic frontrunner during the 1968 Presidential campaign who, had he survived, likely would’ve been the nominee facing Republican (and future winner that year) Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon in the November election.
The loss of Dr. King on April 4 was perhaps more important, particularly to those affected by the Civil Rights Movement, which symbolically ended with his assassination. Both men (Kennedy and King) were key figures in the movement, which had been characterized by years of national protests – both peaceful and violent. But King’s tireless efforts no doubt were critical to the passing of several legislative acts that sought to level the playing field for African-Americans.
1968 also found the U.S. embroiled in two major international conflicts: one involving the continuing Vietnam War, in which mounting losses of American soldiers abroad triggered reduced support for the war back home. The other was a year-long standoff between North Korea and the U.S., after the North Korean army captured a U.S. Navy intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, in one of the straits separating Korea and Japan. The conflict began with the ship and crew’s capture in January (the Koreans claimed the ship had crossed into forbidden waters), and ended when the Americans were returned safely home just before Christmas after eleven months of negotiations.
And in sports news that have been recalled often during recent weeks, two black U.S. Olympians (Tommie Smith and John Carlos) raised their clinched fists in protest of American policies back home during the playing of the National Anthem at the Olympics, while accepting their gold and bronze medals at presentation ceremonies. This gesture was, of course, met with mixed American reactions – from those who supported the cause and from others who either didn’t support it or who felt that social politics and sports shouldn’t be mixed.
Sound anything like today?
The musical soundtrack of 1968 was one that was truly worthy of its association with American history’s most pivotal year. Artists making the biggest impact that year included Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Beatles, Otis Redding, James Brown, The Rascals, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, the Monkees, the Fifth Dimension and Cream.
The song that best captured the mood in America after the assassinations of King and Kennedy was Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” It was a moving tribute to their memories as well as those of slain Presidents John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. The song was so popular that it touched R&B audiences and even topped the chart in Canada, selling over a million copies in the process.
One of the year’s earliest hits was Otis Redding’s “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay,” a song that went to #1 following the soul singer’s tragic death at the end of 1967.
The biggest hit of 1968 turned out to be the Beatles’ biggest hit, “Hey Jude,” which spent nine weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song had been inspired by John Lennon’s son, Julian, and written by Paul McCartney after the breakup of John and his first wife, Cynthia. The single’s B-side, “Revolution,” contributed to its sales and captured the protest spirit that was growing in America and abroad.
The tune that replaced “Hey Jude” at the top was the Supremes’ eleventh chart topper, “Love Child.” The Beatles and the Supremes had become accustomed to replacing each other at the top as they combined for 32 #1 songs between 1964 and ’70. “Love Child” was the first of two #1 songs by Motown’s premier group to be billed as Diana Ross & the Supremes (“Someday We’ll Be Together” followed in 1969). It was also their first #1 without Florence Ballard, who’d left the group the previous year.
Indeed Motown continued to dominate with artists like the Supremes, the Temptations (“I Wish It Would Rain”), Stevie Wonder (“Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day”), Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (“If You Can Want”) and Marvin Gaye (“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”) all having big chart hits. Marvin would continue scoring with his duet partner Tammi Terrell, whose “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” both topped the Billboard R&B charts that year. Terrell, who had earlier been diagnosed with brain cancer after collapsing during a performance with Marvin the previous October, would sadly pass away two years later.
The act with the most top-ten pop hits in ’68 was Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, who had four. The two biggest were “Young Love” and “Lady Willpower.” Puckett has been touring recently with other 1968 staples, including The Turtles (“Elenore”), the Cowsills (“Indian Lake”), as part of the Turtles’ Happy Together tour.
The Rascals scored big that year with two of their biggest hits: “People Got To Be Free,” their last number one, and “A Beautiful Morning.” The former was a symbol of that year’s big peace movement and both songs continued the band’s blue-eyed-soul brand of pop music.
And speaking of soul, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin further solidified her reign with hits like “Think,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and “I Say A Little Prayer.” Franklin, herself active in the Civil Rights Movement, famously sang “Precious Lord” at Dr. King’s funeral that April, as seen in this clip below.
Other major hits that year included “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (Rolling Stones), “This Guy’s In Love With You” (Herb Alpert), “Sunshine of Your Love” (Cream), “Hello, I Love You” (Doors), “Stoned Soul Picnic” (Fifth Dimension), “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Born To Be Wild” (both Steppenwolf), “The Look Of Love” (Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66), and movie songs like “Mrs. Robinson” (Simon & Garfunkel, from The Graduate) and “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” (Hugo Montenegro).
Speaking of “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” instrumentals were still a thing then. Big ones included Hugh Masakela’s “Grazing In The Grass,” Cliff Nobles’ “The Horse,” Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” and Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue,” the latter being a huge Number One hit. In fact, had it not been for “Hey Jude,” Mauriat’s easy-listening, string-laden tune would’ve been the biggest hit of the year.
Rhyming names were also big in 1968. Groups with names like the Drells, the Dells and the Shondells all hit big that year. Archie Bell & the Drells had the #1 pop crossover hit, “Tighten Up.” Tommy James & the Shondells hit big with “Mony, Mony.” And the Dells had “Stay In My Corner.”
The Dells were not to be confused with the Delfonics, who scored their biggest hit in 1968 with “La La Means I Love You.”
In the category of firsts and lasts, rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix released his last studio album (before his death) with Electric Ladyland, which became his first and only #1 album on the Billboard 200. It also gave him his only top-40 pop hit, “All Along The Watchtower,” the classic psychedelic blues-rock tune written and first recorded by Bob Dylan. To this day many consider Hendrix’s version to be the preeminent one, and many have classified it to be one of the best cover versions of all time.
1968 also saw the beginnings of the legendary rock group, Led Zeppelin, who were formed by former Yardbird Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham. Their début self-titled album was recorded in the fall of 1968 and would be released in January the following year.
Another newcomer in 1968 was the Welsh folk singer, Mary Hopkin, whose nostalgic tune “Those Were The Days” reached #2 on the Hot 100. The song was produced by Paul McCartney and appeared on the Beatles’ Apple Records.
Those may in fact have been the days as we now look back on them – especially musically. As I wrote this piece, I couldn’t help but wonder whether 1968 might actually have been the best year in popular music history, ironically juxtaposed against the most troubling of years historically.
Considering all the songs and the artists of that year, it would be tough to argue that 1968 wasn’t one of history’s best musically, despite – or maybe because of – the fact it was filled with a level of social and political turmoil in this country that easily ranks it the Number One most troubling year in American history.
Other candidate years and their biggest hits:
2005 (worst natural disasters in U.S. history: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Dennis; continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; housing bubble bursts). Biggest pop hits: “We Belong Together” (Mariah Carey), “Hollaback Girl” (Gwen Stefani), “Let Me Love You” (Mario), “Since U Been Gone” (Kelly Clarkson), “1, 2 Step” (Ciara feat. Missy Elliott), “Gold Digger” (Kanye West), “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (Green Day).
1974 (Watergate, Nixon Resignation, national gas crisis). Biggest pop hits: “The Way We Were” (Barbra Streisand), “Seasons In The Sun” (Terry Jacks), “Love’s Theme” (Love Unlimited Orchestra), “Come And Get Your Love” (Redbone) “Dancing Machine” (Jackson 5), “Bennie & the Jets (Elton John) and “TSOP” by MFSB.
1961 (failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cold War). Biggest pop hits: “Tossin’ and Turnin'” (Bobby Lewis), “I Fall To Pieces” (Patsy Cline), “Michael” (Highwaymen), “Cryin'” (Roy Orbison) and “Runaway” (Del Shannon).