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.
Each Monday, we’ll post another mini-list until we reach our top 10 on July 3, spotlighting some of our favorites that didn’t make the list along the way. Enjoy!
20) “Take A Giant Step” (1966)
Appears on: The Monkees
Written by songwriting powerhouses Carole King and Gerry Goffin for the Monkees’ debut album and produced by mainstays Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, “Take a Giant Step” can thank some of the best session musicians of the era for its distinct lite-psychedelic flavor. As the B-side to the band’s first (hit) single, “Last Train to Clarksville” (#32), it’s almost a perfect complement: light, twinkly, and introspective, whereas “Last Train” is brash and driving. (Conversely, Taj Mahal’s popular cover from 1969 feels more laid back without losing the lyrics’ effectiveness.)
“Giant Step” is one of my favorite Monkees songs. The complex lyrics from the perspective of a singer encouraging a girl to love and live again after heartbreak are beautiful. They paint the picture of hearts thawing, regaining a child-like wonder for life, and freedom from self-imposed gloomy isolation. The harpsichord and oboe breakdown give the chorus a mystical touch as it urges the listener to “take a giant step outside your mind,” clearly a nod the counterculture just starting to sweep through America; a youth movement that challenged reality in order to better itself. Themes of a generation learning to love again, awakening after a deeply traumatic experience exist right underneath the song’s cheerful exterior. — Louie Pearlman
19) “Auntie’s Municipal Court” (1968)
Appears on: The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees
The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees marks the point when the Monkees were beginning to move in noticeably different musical directions, spurred by Colgems’ new policy that allowed each band member a certain amount of studio time per week. Mike Nesmith’s contributions to the album are by far the most experimental, and one rather bizarre, yet strangely enchanting, entry into the Monkees’ catalog is “Auntie’s Municipal Court.” Perhaps accidentally genius, “Auntie’s” completely captivates with its tapestry of sounds as it gradually builds to a final, psychedelic swell.
While the song’s dreamy atmosphere, hypnotic repetition, and meandering guitars make it drastically different from anything that one might have associated with the Monkees only a year before, “Auntie’s” could technically be called one of the two true Monkees songs on the album because it’s the only track — other than “Daydream Believer” — to include more than one core band member.
Lyrically nonsensical and musically fascinating, “Auntie’s Municipal Court” takes advantage of Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz’s unique vocal dynamic, blending their voices to create a soothing, slightly haunting tone. (It’s also rumored that Nesmith’s then-wife, Phyllis, contributed backing vocals.) The complex layers of instrumentation are in part provided by Paul Revere & the Raiders’ Keith Allison on guitar and none other than Harry Nilsson on keyboards. Having evolved from a studio jam between Allison and Nesmith, “Auntie’s” ventures into somewhat psychedelic territory, mirroring the changing musical trends of the late ‘60s and providing a glimpse into Nesmith’s own creative growth.
Though it was easily ignored at the time and is still obscure to the casual Monkees fan, the song has taken on new life as a cult favorite, and with its careful balance of imagination and accessibility, could in retrospect stand toe to toe with much of the avant-garde material the Beatles were generating during the same period. At the very least, this unusually gorgeous song has the potential to make a newcomer curious about the many unexpected facets of the Monkees’ career. — Gretchen Unico
18) “Sometime in the Morning” (1967)
Appears on: More of the Monkees
More of the Monkees was in some ways “less” of the Monkees, in that this song, for example, only featured vocals by Micky Dolenz. Still, Goffin and King did a terrific job with the songwriting, and production (with Jeff Barry). Carole King even provided additional backing vocals. I’ve always considered this as something of a sister song to Neil Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” (#26) for very little reason. It’s not like many other Monkees songs. It’s soft and slow, rather than poppy, but it also isn’t fully a ballad.
“Sometime in the Morning” was featured in several “romps” than never quite utilized the full meaning of the lyrics. Although it’s often used interchangeably with “I Wanna Be Free,” this song is about discovering your true love in someone you have already been intimate with for a while, even as a friend, and it’s gorgeous with that in mind. — Emma Sedam
17) “She” (1967)
Appears on: More of the Monkees
“She” is yet another Monkees song written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and the album it kicks off — 1967’s More of the Monkees — was referred to by Michael Nesmith himself as “the worst album in the history of the world.” So why does it, and so many of its album mates, make REBEAT’s list of the top 50 Monkees songs?
For me, “She” is a sentimental favorite. More of the Monkees was the first Monkees album I ever owned, and to this day, just hearing that opening guitar riff takes me back to being a 10-year-old fangirl, listening to the song for the first time. It’s pure garage rock, or at least garage rock as performed by studio professionals, featuring electric guitars and a reedy organ solo. “She” is also one of Micky’s most impassioned vocal performances, and the interplay between the lead and backing vocals on the bridge (culminating in that wonderful “Yeah!” “Yeah!” “Yeah!” “Yeah!” exchange) is irresistible. — Carey Farrell
16) “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (1967)
Appears on: Single only
A landmark in the Monkees’ quest for creative control, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” was the band’s first release with all four members manning their instruments — featuring Mike Nesmith on guitar, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz on percussion, and Peter Tork delivering the lovely harpsichord. Though it could also be called the first recording to define the sound of the self-governed Monkees, the band was not yet truly free when the sessions for “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” took place, though they had negotiated for the right to generate some of their own material after More of the Monkees was released without their consent.
Moreover, the take of this Nesmith-penned tune that would become the B-side to “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (#39) wasn’t the first the group had recorded. Originally, Nesmith himself sang the lead vocal, but a few days later, they redid the song with Dolenz in his place. This second version was the one the Monkees planned to put on their next single, but in a last minute power grab, their disgruntled music supervisor, Don Kirshner, issued “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” w/ “She Hangs Out” instead, then quickly disappeared to Florida to avoid the fallout. This executive decision not only severed his ties with the Monkees once and for all, but also ousted him from the Colgems record label. Kirshner’s delinquent release was quickly withdrawn, and shortly after, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” climbed to #39 on the charts.
Not just a moral victory for the Monkees, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” is a great tune in its own right. Allegedly Nesmith’s attempt to sound “less country,” it ended up being one of his best pop compositions. More importantly, it added a new complexity to the Monkees’ established sound, recalling the catchy riffs and solid melodies of their earlier singles and enhancing this framework through Nesmith’s clever, yet relatable, lyrics and interesting touches like Tork’s classical harpsichord solo and the subtle bassline that intros the first verse. As proof that the Monkees could, in fact, be a real band, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” was the first page in a new chapter of the Monkees’ story. — Gretchen Unico
15) “You Told Me” (1967)
Appears on: Headquarters
It’s always neat when the Monkees reference the Beatles — the group they were formed to compete with. At some point, someone must have noticed that the baseline they were using was similar to the one in “Taxman,” and thus started off the song with a parody of the Beatles track. Headquarters producer Chip Douglas provides said bassline, but the rest — banjo, zither, 12-string — is performed by the Monkees themselves. Just as “Taxman” kicks off Revolver, “You Told Me” begins Headquarters. That said, the song doesn’t plagiarize “Taxman” so much as poke fun at the Monkees/Beatles relationship and possibly the Beatles sound.
Nesmith doesn’t show his strongest lyrics on “You Told Me,” but I think it’s a track that really shows how well they could play as a group. The theme of the lying woman would be common for the Monkees, with “She” (#17), “Words” (#23), etc., but “You Told Me” has a very special place in history, being the first track on the first album on which the Monkees played their own instruments. — Emma Sedam
14) “All of Your Toys” (1967)
Appears on: previously unreleased; included in bonus tracks
It’s really hard for me to write about “All of Your Toys” without using expletives. Because that’s how much I love it. In fact, when I rallied the troops to do this countdown, I started with the caveat that this song had to be #1. (You can see how well that went.) Despite never being released until its contemporary album, Headquarters, was reissued decades later, this song is maybe one of the finest in the Monkees’ catalog.
You may ask, “If that’s true, why wasn’t it released?” and start to question my musical taste and judgment. In fact, many Monkees-related personnel, including producer Chip Douglas, agreed that it was a surefire, super-smash hit. The issue was twofold: one, it has no chorus and, therefore, traditionally more difficult to serve up to commercial radio. A mere trifle when you consider Micky Dolenz’s impeachably strong lead vocal (perhaps, dare I say, his best vocal performance of all time?), an equally strong background echo from Michael Nesmith on the outro, Peter Tork’s playful, calliope-esque harpsichord, and a dynamite bass lick courtesy of Nez’s pal from the before-Monkee times John London. The other problem was securing the publishing rights — a real nightmare that usually always stops a would-be hit dead in its tracks.
Sometimes, I like to think of “All of Your Toys” as the song that keeps on giving. There’s always something new to hear in its just-over-three-minute run time. Case in point, the stereo version of the song (above) which debuted on the Music Box compilation and immediately prompted longtime listeners to lose their… minds. Not to mention it was one of the rare master tracks included in the foremost Monkees biopic (she says with sarcasm), Daydream Believers, which may be the only redeeming quality of that film (no sarcasm). Any which way you look at it, it’s an incredible showing featuring all four members at a musical zenith and just might be my favorite Monkees song of all time. — Allison Johnelle Boron
13) “Circle Sky” (1968)
[Ed. note: The video above contains graphic Vietnam War-era footage.]
Appears on: Head; Justus
Michael Nesmith wrote this straightforward rocker specifically for the Monkees as “a band playing as a band” for their yet-to-be-titled film project in 1967. In the live version heard in the resulting film, Head, the song straight-up rocks, and the Monkees look like they are having a blast playing it at a live performance in Salt Lake City. It would be the last time ever that the original lineup of the four Monkees would play a show together in the United States.
Strange then that the proper version recorded specifically for the album (opposed to the live film version) features Nesmith with a group of studio players. This apparently caused understandable friction in the group, but was rectified with the re-recording for 1996’s Justus, featuring a rare turn from Davy Jones on guitar. This makes “Circle Sky” the first (and so far only! No spoilers!) Justus track to make our top 50!
The song itself is a testament to, and was inspired by, their cohesiveness as a unit at the time. The scene in Head in which it features is an iconic moment for the band: mirrored camera tricks and slow-motion imagery of young fans screaming, interspersed with scenes from Vietnam. The viewer is left to devise his or own own connections between a rock concert and a battlefield.
A high point in Nesmith’s career as a songwriter, “Circle Sky” is cacophonous, catchy, and complex and reveals an interesting perspective on a band who had only recently become an autonomous entity — only to soon see it all fall apart. — Louie Pearlman
12) “Randy Scouse Git” (1967)
Appears on: Headquarters
The first of Micky Dolenz’s solo compositions to appear on an album, “Randy Scouse Git” is a hazy retelling of the events and people at a birthday party hosted by the Beatles, referencing Cass Elliot (“a girl in yellow dress”), Dolenz’s soon-to-be wife Samantha Juste (“the being known as Wonder Girl”), and the Fab Four themselves (“the four kings of EMI”). Jumping from one random observation to another, Dolenz perfectly captures that swirling, drunken, 3:00 a.m. feeling that anyone who’s partied hard knows all too well.
These scattered observations are juxtaposed against the chorus, which mimics the rants of an older outsider condemning the party’s attendees and their values. His complaints range from the common mid-’60s parental lament, “Why don’t you cut your hair?” to a much darker condemnation of the anti-war values held by so many of the Monkees’ young generation, “Why don’t you hate who I hate / kill who I kill to be free?”
The final section sets the verse and the chorus against each other in a heated battle to be heard over the other. Backed by an intense drumbeat, the vocals mirror the tense generational struggle that was taking place in living rooms across the country as opposition to the Vietnam War increased. (Interestingly, Dolenz sings the same “Why don’t you hate who I hate” verse at the end of “Love’s What I Want,” a bonus track on 2016’s Good Times! album.)
The title itself, one of my favorite parts of the song, doesn’t appear anywhere in the lyrics. Dolenz took it from a catchphrase on the British TV show Till Death Do Us Part, the cynical family sitcom that inspired All in the Family in the US. (“Randy Scouse Git” was Till Death Do Us Part‘s equivalent of Archie Bunker calling his son-in-law “Meathead”).
The Monkees may have liked the phrase, but their UK record label, RCA, sure didn’t. Worried that the title — which roughly means “horny Liverpudlian idiot” — might be offensive to some listeners, RCA asked the Monkees for an alternate title. And Dolenz, in a brilliantly cheeky move, simply called the UK release “Alternate Title.” Whatever it was called, it was a huge hit, shooting to #2 in the UK.
Not only do the lyrics refer to the Beatles, the music is rife with Beatlesque touches, including a piano accompaniment and a scat section reminiscent of McCartney songs like “Rocky Raccoon.” But since “Randy Scouse Git” came first, maybe it was the Beatles who were inspired by the Monkees’ third album? Could be. Despite their differences, the two bands ran in similar circles, and the Beatles grew to openly admire the Monkees’ talents. — Erika White
11) “Shades of Gray” (1965)
Appears on: Headquarters
Usually, whenever someone thinks of the Monkees, they’ll more than likely just imagine the goofy pop band who liked to bounce around on the beach to their upbeat and playful theme song. But, as we’ve seen, they can handle tougher topics, and for many kids, teenagers, and young adults at the time and to this day, they were a stepping stone (no pun intended) to learning some of the harsher facts of life.
It seems more than fitting, then, that “Shades of Gray” came out amid the often-turbulent changing environment of the 1960s. Kids and young adults were probably starting to realize during this time that not everything was how it seemed to be, and the lyrics to this song probably connected to them in a way, speaking to the sometimes moral, ethical, political, and social ambiguities of life in its lyrics: “But today there is no day or night / today there is no dark or light / today there is no black or white / only shades of gray.”
The instrumentation serves this song greatly. The cello and french horn greatly add to its shared lead vocal from Davy Jones and Peter Tork, aided by Micky Dolenz. The arrangement and melody are able vehicles for a gentle, accepting vibe that, although things aren’t the way they once were, it’s all going to be okay. Combine that with Barry Mann and Cynthia Well’s lyrics, and it’s a truly amazing track to come from these four. — John Hamilton