In celebration of the Monkees’ 50th anniversary, we’re counting down our 50 favorite Monkees songs. As you might expect with a band whose catalog is so rich, diverse, and rife with material from the era’s top songwriters, it was a challenge to narrow our list down to only 50, let alone rank them. So we created a complex point system in order to keep everything fair ‘n’ square, broke some ties, and voila! — here we are.
Although we worked hard to create a list that reflected our top picks, there were some songs that just didn’t make our first 50. We wanted to give them their moment in the sun, so to speak, by creating this brief interlude before our final top 10 next week. Obviously, we could go on forever listing songs that didn’t make the cut, but instead, we personally (and individually) chose 10 that we thought deserved an honorable mention.
1) “Me & Magdalena” (2016)
Appears on: Good Times!
When we started ranking our favorite Monkees songs, we mulled over the possibility that we might need to make room for a track or two from the then-upcoming new album, Good Times! But, going by the precedent set by other legacy acts releasing new material after being out of the studio for decades, we felt fairly confident that we would be set with our 50, and that was that.
As Louie and I worked on our review of Good Times!, we spent many a phone call ruminating over not only how genuinely great and diversified the album was, but how we were going to work it into the countdown. At one point, the staff discussed making a #25.5 for this song alone, but in the end, we decided to stick with our original assemblage. “Me & Magdalena” is included here at the top of our list because, besides being a fantastic song, it represents the entire album in an unexpectedly strong turn for the Monkees in their golden year.
This track immediately stuck out to me the first time I heard Good Times! as an obvious single and probably the song most ripe for contemporary indie radio thanks to its excellent production from Adam Schlesinger. It wasn’t until the album’s release in May that I heard the second, alternate version and, if I’m honest, became obsessed with it. Where the official track is a straightforward ballad featuring the sacred pairing (to Monkees fans anyway) of vocals from Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, the bonus version is a more lush, layered interpretation, complete with a psychedelic organ that recalls back to classic Monkees tracks like “Porpoise Song (Theme From Head).”
It’s the lyrics penned by Ben Gibbard, frontman of bands like Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service, that make this a truly magnificent and unprecedented track in the Monkees’ career. The reason for this is partly personal: on the day of the album’s release, I went and bought three copies (support the artists, people), then spent another hour running errands and listening to this song on repeat — and sobbing in my car. It takes a lot to get me to the point where I’m ugly crying beside strangers at a red light, and I had a brief flash of, “What am I doing? Why is this doing this to me?”
And I decided the answer is twofold: one involves the theme of loss, recovery, and memory. This song perfectly pinpointed not only how I was feeling (and still feel), but also was strangely soothing, as if the recurring line “everything lost will be recovered” was meant to assure me that everything would work out in the end. I admit that it’s become kind of a mantra for me lately.
The second reason is purely because I was listening to my first favorite band ever’s new record and it was astoundingly good and deserving of the Monkees’ name, even without Davy Jones’ presence (other than “Love to Love,” which we’ll talk about in a minute). Where I had been looking forward to the album with interest, I’d also been tempering my expectations, so to have them so exceeded was overwhelming. And it’s a real testament to where the Monkees are today, 50 years after their inception, that they can illicit feels from their fans, maybe more now than ever before. — Allison Johnelle Boron
2) “Midnight Train” (1967/1970)
Appears on: Missing Links, Vol. 3/Changes
A simple little song written by Micky Dolenz as part of his potential contributions for the Headquarters album, “Midnight Train” didn’t make an official appearance until the Monkees’ Changes in 1970. The finished album version is okay, but a little too boisterous for my tastes.
That being said, the 1967 demo version is worth all the listens. This song is a rarity in the Monkees’ catalog: a down-and-dirty country and western homage to lying, cheating, and gambling with Micky himself on lead and his sister Coco harmonizing. Their vocal blend is excellent; in hindsight, Micky would have been benefited by Coco’s harmony on more Monkees songs. Also, Micky’s steady and bouncy guitar line is as equal a player in the demo as the vocals. The end of the song in which the two play around with the chorus is really delightful and speaks to the brother-sister dynamic in full force for this song.
The Monkees finally started performing “Midnight Train” in an acoustic version in sets last year. This is great news for fans because it really deserves to be a better known Monkees song. It showcases Micky Dolenz’s abilities as a versatile (and somewhat commercial) songwriter and Coco Dolenz’s wonderful vocal complements that mixes the two with just the right combination of sweetness and coolness. — Louie Pearlman
3) “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog” (1966)
Appears on: The Monkees
While “Last Train to Clarksville” (#32) introduced the masses to the Monkees’ sound, “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog” introduced the band’s personality. Yet another of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s many contributions to the Monkees’ debut LP, the song was included to emulate the Beatles’ practice of putting a Ringo Starr novelty track on each album. One can easily imagine how a straightforward version of “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog” might have been forgettable and somewhat dated, but as it turned out, the Monkees’ loose rendition demonstrates what made them so lovable — the Monkees themselves.
Interestingly enough, Mike Nesmith and arranger Don Peake were the first to take a stab at “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog” in the early sessions for The Monkees. A few weeks later, music supervisor Don Kirshner encouraged an assembly of studio musicians to be “funny and different” in recording the already comedic tune. The result was a heavily fuzz-laden track, featuring “dog barks” in the form of guitar picks scratching on strings.
But the real stroke of genius came from Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz — soon to become the two most popular Monkees — who riffed all over it, playing off the corny lyrics and each other. According to Bobby Hart, Jones and Dolenz didn’t have much respect for the song in the first place and demonstrated as much by making fun of it during the recording session. Then, somewhere along the line, somebody realized just what they had in this particular take — perhaps knowing it would be a great segue to the Monkees’ sitcom, or perhaps just thinking it was funny — and the outtake ended up being the final track on the album.
For a nascent 14-year-old fan who had yet to even see an episode of the TV show, this song played a big part in endearing me to the Monkees. Of course, I loved all of their more conventional pop tunes, but “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog” gave me insight into who exactly these guys were. I found the song completely hilarious and quickly committed the entire routine to memory, reciting all the jokes with my younger sister. While I’m not sure how many people have latched onto it since The Monkees original release, I like to imagine all the other young fans who have discovered “I’m Gonna Buy Me A Dog” throughout the years, delighted in its humor, and sparked a lifelong affection for this wonderful band. — Gretchen Unico
4) “Shorty Blackwell” (1969)
Appears on: Instant Replay
Yes, “Shorty Blackwell.” Don’t give me that look. I love that track (although I’d be lying if I said I was surprised it didn’t make the Top 50).
Micky Dolenz’s ode to life through the eyes of a cat has divided Monkees fans for decades. Some write off the nearly six-minute suite (the longest Monkees track released in the 1960s) as overblown and pretentious for its orchestration and “rock opera” construction, territory many feel the Monkees had no business venturing into, or that Dolenz was trying too hard for the title of “Sgt. Monkee.”
I say it’s all a matter of how you approach the song. This isn’t Dolenz going for art. This is Dolenz having a laugh and a half, and if you step into “Shorty Blackwell” with that in mind, you can have a laugh, too. That said, for some, that’s the problem with the song: it’s an expensive, overproduced joke that isn’t very funny. Bah.
The way the musical mood builds up when “he’s going mad” into traumatic “there’s a monster coming” kettle drum and brass music straight out of a cartoon is amusing, as is the little waltz section. Admittedly, sometimes the harmonies (Micky and his sister Coco, two voices that often blend together fabulously, and do so to this day, as Coco tours with the Monkees as a backing vocalist) get a little sour, but that just helps make it hard to escape the feeling that all participants knew to keep things from ever getting too serious. — Michael Lynch
5) “Love to Love” (1967/2016)
Appears on: Original version previously unreleased, included on Missing Links, Vol.3/Good Times!
All in all, the Monkees released four Neil Diamond compositions: the back-to-back singles “I’m a Believer” (#22) and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (#39), the More of the Monkees album cut “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” (#26), and one initially sentenced to confinement that was anything but solitary, man, among the 10 billion other early 1967 Jeff Barry-session casualties. A shame, as the Davy-sung “Love to Love” was no mere Diamond in the rough, but a catchy quality track.
Diamond recorded his own gentle version of the song in 1966 on his first album, The Feel of Neil Diamond. By the time producer Jeff Barry brought the song to Monkeeland in January 1967, it was considerably more rocking, layered with bright direct-feed Fender guitars, tambourine, and organ in lieu of the trombones of Diamond’s take, which the Monkees’ recording now only partly resembled. The results were impressive for sure.
Side note: readers are advised to seek out “You’ll Forget” from Diamond’s second album, Just For You, for about as close as you can get to hearing him do the Monkees’ arrangement of “Love to Love.” Not only does “You’ll Forget” have a similar texture, but it also follows the chords of “Love to Love” pretty closely.
Well, then came the showdown between the Monkees and Don Kirshner, resulting in Jeff Barry’s ties with the band being severed and all those tunes he was stockpiling for impending Monkees releases doomed to dust-collecting. A few years later, Barry was brought back to assist with the final gasp of Monkees releases, and during this time, he did take some of his old tapes out for air for and touch-ups, including “Love to Love,” but despite this, ultimately the song never graced space on Colgems vinyl.
Thankfully, from about 1979 onward, compilations and rarities collections like Monkee Business and the Missing Links series have given “Love to Love” its due so fans can enjoy its numerous perks. Its ultimate compliment came this year when the Monkees themselves selected the song as Davy’s sole showcase on Good Times!, even adding some new backing vocals to the 49-year-old recording. With Good Times! as their best selling album since 1968, many are now finally getting a chance to love “Love to Love.” — Michael Lynch
6) “Writing Wrongs” (1968)
Appears on: The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees
Or as I call this track, “Nez-olation Row,” as I have long suspected Mike Nesmith’s lyrics of this five-minute whatever-you-wanna-call-it are a conscious reply to a handful of Bob Dylan songs from 1965, primarily “Desolation Row.” (For example, “The moon is almost hidden” versus “The moon just disappeared”; “Well, I heard you finally got my letter” versus “Yes, I received your letter yesterday”; both songs having the circus in town on the fourth line shortly after something changes color; and, lateraling Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” “Have you noticed the color of the sun?” versus “The sun is not yellow, it’s chicken.”) I don’t know if this truly “just missed” our Top 50 or missed it by a mile, but in my own little world it’s a cherished cut.
Featuring Eddie Hoh on drums, Rick Dey on bass, and Nez on everything else, a piano-led beginning in which Nesmith fills us in on the latest gossip of the people and events of Writingwrongville gives way to a chuggling guitar to take us through an instrumental rave-up in which some elementary piano plays tennis with some equally elementary organ playing. They call it a draw and the song returns to the slow part for some final thoughts.
Is it necessary? Perhaps not, but ever since my first play of it back in 1985 I’ve been quite taken by it. Additionally it’s certainly a left turn from “Daydream Believer,” the song that immediately precedes it on the album. I’ve gone back to this track far many more times than others on this album. Is it psychedelia by someone not very good at it, or is it something by someone very good at mimicking psychedelia by someone not very good at it? I’m guessing it’s something closer to the latter. You write some lines about weird things and weird people, you play some strange music, you’re done. Whatever Nesmith’s level of earnestness on “Writing Wrongs,” to my ears he wrote rights.
All the same, I can’t help but feel sorry for poor Peter Tork who must have been less than thrilled that none of his own songs made the album while this did. C’est la vie. — Michael Lynch
7) “Mommy and Daddy” (1969)
Appears on: The Monkees Present
This dark and chilling Micky Dolenz track puts an end to any argument that frames the Monkees as the “Pre-Fab Four” or insinuates that they were just a bubblegum pop group. On the contrary, “Mommy and Daddy” once again proves that the Monkees — Dolenz especially — are a deep, creative force to be reckoned with.
The song’s raw social commentary bluntly challenges the façade of the happy family at a time when war, chaos, and the threat of death was ever present. A young man, just on the verge of social consciousness, asks his parents the hard questions that they turn away from, ranging from “who really killed JFK,” issues at home (“Ask your mommy if she really gets off on all her…pills”), to a graphic challenge about the real-life consequences of the draft (“Would it matter if the bullet went through my head? / If it was my blood spilling on the kitchen floor?”). His final pronouncement: “It’s all a lie.”
These harsh, damning words are juxtaposed against lively music reminiscent of a marching band or circus, with pounding drums and brass underscoring the darkness beneath the happy family. When the lyrics reach their goriest moments (“If it was my blood spilling on the kitchen floor”), the music becomes even brighter; a rambunctious 11-o’clock number from a Vaudeville musical. The discord between musical themes and the lyrics is dark, sinister, and absolutely brilliant.
It was originally written for the early-1969 Instant Replay album, but producers considered the original lyrics too dark for the Monkees’ teenage audience. So listeners were first exposed to a much tamer “Mommy and Daddy,” re-written and recorded for their next album, The Monkees Present. Gone was the question of “who really killed JFK,” the suggestion that mother is addicted to pills, the image of the boy’s blood on the kitchen floor, and the accusation that the happy family is a lie. In its place are milder lyrics that give a similar, yet much subtler message. Dolenz felt that the protest theme of “Mommy and Daddy” made it akin to “Randy Scouse Git” (#20), and even included an identical reference to “the Kings of EMI,” the Beatles.
The toned-down version appeared as the B-side to the innocent, country-tinged “Good Clean Fun.” Even with less controversial references, it’s still a jarring counterpoint to the more traditional pop fare on the A-side. The original, with the darker lyrics, wasn’t released commercially until 1994, as an extra track on the Rhino CD release. This version is about as chilling as it gets and is, in my opinion, one of the Monkees’ true masterpieces. — Erika White
8) “Do You Feel It Too” (1970)
Appears on: Changes
Appearing on the Monkees’ final original and much-derided album, Changes, “Do You Feel It Too” might seem like a strange one to make the list. But this Archies-esque ballad by songwriters Jeff Barry and Andy Kim has an undeniable swing and sweetness to it that gives it a place on the list of forgotten Monkees gems.
Hot off the heels of the biggest hit of 1969, the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” its visionaries Barry and Kim were tasked with assembling the final album for the Monkees project. By this point, both Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork had exited, which left Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones remaining to trudge into the studio and lend their vocal tracks to songs played by session musicians.
Despite Jones’ public dislike of having to do the sessions (as noted in the liner notes for the reissue of Changes), the team was able to bring out Jones and Dolenz’s warm and showmanship-like qualities that made them so likable as vocalists. “Do You Feel It Too” is a pretty great song about the initial moments of being head over heels in love.
Written by Kim and Barry for Kim’s 1968 LP How’d We Ever Get This Way, Davy Jones’ lead vocals give the song a depth that Andy Kim doesn’t quite have. The Monkees’ version also has a more tambourine-based arrangement that brings out the track’s bubblegum-lite feel.
Lyrically, the song falls into a lot of the trappings of the late-Sixties disposable pop. It compares love to holding onto a ball, uses the term “crazy sounds” and rhymes “groovy” with “movie” (ugh). But it also uses some imaginative lyrical imagery. The opening line, “I’m like a toy balloon/and someone cruel has cut the string” to describe the initial feelings of falling in love is dead on. It’s this type of wordplay that’s found throughout the song that makes it such a treat and worth another listen as part of the Monkees’ story. — Louie Pearlman
9) “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” (1967)
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.
I can’t decide whether the singer is sadly lamenting a lost love or is just a total dog — and that ambiguity is one of the reasons I like this song. On one hand, this “loud-mouth Yankee” “lightly took advantage of a girl” on a quick trip across the border from Texas to Mexico (how does someone lightly take advantage of someone else???). Sure, she was in love with him — he could tell even though there was a huge language barrier (hmmmm…). But on the other hand, he missed his train to stay with her just a little longer, regrets that he missed his chance for something more, and vows to go back when he can afford it. A total toss-up, am I right?
Lyrics aside, the song really shines musically. Texas-born Michael Nesmith was a perfect choice for fronting this country-inspired track, written by Nesmith’s friends and labelmates Michael Martin Murphey and Owen Castleman (better known as the Lewis & Clarke Expedition). Close harmonies akin to the Byrds or Peter, Paul and Mary, set against the country twang of a driving electric banjo, give this track a unique vibe — distinctly country, yet so very 1967.
Nesmith’s vocals are absolutely outstanding here. I mean, just listen to him as he wails out “And still I can’t stop thinking when I hear that whistle crying.” Amazing. I could listen to him sing like that all day. — Erika White
10) “Mr. Webster” (1967)
Appears on: Headquarters
As we’ve mentioned ad nauseum throughout our countdown, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart were the masters of writing pop tunes, particularly for the Monkees. By Headquarters, their influence was more limited, but they were still pumping out pop tunes like “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind” and ballads like “I’ll Spend My Life With You.” Every song on Headquarters really deserves a spot on the top 50 list, but none were passed over so sadly as the unusual “Mr. Webster.”
“Mr. Webster” doesn’t sound like the usual Boyce and Hart fare, and it doesn’t have nearly the normal subject matter. Perhaps that’s a reason the original version (recorded with session musicians) was left off of More of the Monkees. But since the Monkees grew up quickly for Headquarters, they were ready for songs with a more mature (though still playful) subject matter. And on the new version, the group did what they did with the rest of the album and played the majority of the instruments, resulting in a song with a very interesting subject matter, which they fully “owned.” Micky Dolenz even contributed guitar to the song, with Michael Nesmith on steel guitar and Peter Tork on piano. The tempo was slower in the session musician version, and for Headquarters, they really breathed life into the tune.
When I was a kid, I always liked songs with darker premises, and “Mr. Webster” was no exception. I was intrigued by the world of this longtime bank employee and the sadness behind the close of the song. In a world and a year of pop songs about women and love, a song about an aging bankteller was a rarity. It’s possible that it was written as a competitor to the Beatles “Dr. Robert,” but it doesn’t share a sound or subject matter, so Boyce and Hart really succeeded in writing a unique composition. And the Monkees made it their own. It’s a fantastic track. — Emma Sedam