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!
30) “Tear the Top Right Off My Head” (1968)
Appears on: Previously unreleased; included on Missing Links, Vol. 3
“Tear the Top Right Off My Head” is a very unusual song, with Buffalo Springfield’s Dewey Martin sitting in on drums. It’s very specifically Monkees, even though it isn’t the bubblegum sound many associate with the group. And although the official session for this track was in 1968, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz can be heard performing a short acoustic version in the 1967 TV episode “Hitting the High Seas.” Subsequently, they each recorded a version on lead vocals, but the finished product that comes out best for me is performed by the composer himself, Peter Tork.
I can only imagine it was left off of The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees for sounding too violent or drug-influenced (“freaking out in the afternoon / looking at a daytime moon”), because the songwriting is outstanding to me. It’s one of my favorite rarities and one of my favorite Tork pieces. — Emma Sedam
29) “I Wanna Be Free” (1966)
Appears on: The Monkees
I’m a giant Davy Jones fan, and this song makes me swoon. Sweet, contemplative, and calculated to make pre-teen girls fall in love on the spot, it instantly established Davy as the group’s resident heartbreaker (didn’t hurt that it was first featured in the pilot, where Davy and the object of his affection literally have stars in their eyes for one another).
But as innocent as it sounds on the surface, the lyrics point to a much more mature sentiment. It embraces a lifestyle defined by freedom and free love; as far as the signer is concerned, if his lover isn’t on board with that, it’s not going to work — “if your love has to tie me, don’t try me / say goodbye.” A modern sentiment for the times, expressing an independent-minded ideal of relationship that many of us still aspire to today.
Like many of the other songs from their debut album, songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart modeled “I Wanna Be Free” after the Beatles. The simple melody backed by a string quartet is reminiscent of “Yesterday,” and the placement of such an unironically sincere ballad in the middle of an upbeat pop album was meant to mimic a Fab Four-style tracklist.
“I Wanna Be Free” was only released as a single in a few countries, but it rose high in the charts where it did, and became popular with fans worldwide through its many appearances on the first season of the TV show. Its continued popularity landed it on many greatest hits compilations, and it was a staple of live performances too, with Davy turning on the full power of his considerable charm.
An alternate version, in a higher key with a faster tempo, a psychedelic vibe, and shared vocals with Micky, also aired on the series, and was later included on the 2001 Music Box compilation and as an extra track on the 2006 remastered version of The Monkees. This version definitely has more of that signature Monkees sound, but I’ll always prefer the sweet simplicity of the original. — Erika White
28) “She Hangs Out” (1967)
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
Last week, we discussed the ruckus that this Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich-penned song initially caused when Monkees’ music supervisor Don Kirshner released it as the B-side of “A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You” (#39) in Canada. He didn’t have consent from the band or Monkees show runners Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, resulting in his firing and a creative changing of the guard.
However, the Monkees must have acknowledged the song’s potential. It showed up post-emancipation on their fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. This newly recorded version featured Michael Nesmith on electric guitar; Peter Tork on organ; and Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and producer Chip Douglas on backing vocals. This has lead to numerous versions released over the years, including the TV version with session musicians and the more well-known PACJ Ltd. version, and the requisite mono and stereo mixes. It’s a lot of work done on a song that’s actually a fairly straightforward number.
Despite contributions from the other members, this swinger is all Jones at his most seductive. Monkees producers sometimes had a hard time meshing Jones’ Broadway-like sensibilities with what was a more pop-based project, but they get it right here. In both versions, Jones growls the lyrics in an almost blues-y fashion, and there’s an element of rock ‘n’ roll danger to the song that’s absent in most other well-known Monkees tracks.
Fairly risque for the time, the song deals lyrically with a sexy little sister who Jones wants to know the age of. Guess he’s worried about robbing the cradle? This feels similar in tone to another PACJ Ltd. track, “Cuddly Toy” (#50) in its use of innuendo. Lyrics claim that the sister has already learned how to boogaloo and shingalang… but as is rock ‘n’ roll tradition, it doesn’t sound like those words are only referring to dancing. I just hope the sister in question is legal. — Louie Pearlman
27) “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” (1968)
Appears on: Previously unreleased; included on Missing Links, Vol. 3
The second track on our countdown born from Michael Nesmith’s 1968 Nashville sessions, the beautiful, soul-filled “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” finds Nez at his most country. Where brethren “St. Matthew” (#44) skews a little more towards the hard-rock sound, the unmistakable twang of lush pedal steel almost overtakes “Propinquity’s” vocal in a manner recalling C&W superstars like Patsy Cline.
Nesmith is often heralded as the forefather of “country rock” as a genre, and his instinct that whatever was happening in Nashville could benefit rock ‘n’ roll makes a great case for the claim. In fact, it’s pretty arguable that country rock may have been born at these sessions, though its genesis was felt even earlier with tracks like “Sweet Young Thing” (#33) and “Papa Gene’s Blues” on the Monkees’ first album. (It’s also worth noting that Nesmith’s Nashville trip preceded the release of the Byrds’ country-rock keystone Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Flying Burrito Brothers, or any significant output from Gram Parsons in that vein.)
Regardless of where and how this innovative style of music came to be, “Propinquity” deserves its moment in the spotlight. Beyond its heart-melting lyrics, its melody and concept foreshadow what was to come a couple of years down the road for Nesmith and his First National Band. In fact, this song would finally find a home on 1971’s Nevada Fighter and continues to be a fan favorite at concerts. The version that most adore, however, is the one featured here from Missing Links, Vol. 3, a gem of a discovery that was probably slated for the Monkees’ double album that never happened. But that’s a story for another day… — Allison Johnelle Boron
26) “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” (1967)
Appears on: More of the Monkees
Of Neil Diamond’s stunning contributions to More of the Monkees — “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” and the chart-topping “I’m A Believer” (#22) — the less famous of the two always wins out for me. While that may be partly the result of “I’m A Believer’s” overexposure, “Look Out’s” infectious beat and sunny sound manage to put me in a good mood every time.
Much like Diamond’s other compositions from this period, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (#39) and “Cherry Cherry,” this tune starts out with a catchy acoustic guitar that instantly hooks the listener. However, the upbeat rhythm is contradicted by the song’s melancholy lyrics — something that the ‘60s pop masters were especially good at — joyously shouting about “all kinds of sorrow.”
While Diamond may be the one responsible for this gem, it’s hard to imagine any better artist to deliver it than Davy Jones, who notoriously played the ladies’ man on the Monkees’ TV show. In fact, it’s somewhat remarkable that “Look Out” never appeared in an episode revolving around the exact problem addressed in the song — a young man suffering the unimaginable pain of having to choose between two gorgeous women.
Not many among us could ever relate to such a situation, but Jones effortlessly fills the role with his natural charm, even including a spoken word bridge where he professes his love for both Mary and Sandra. Though this portion may sound incredibly corny to anyone who isn’t a preteen Davy fan, the shtick is certainly a lot more effective than in another track from More of the Monkees, “The Day We Fall In Love,” which tries to do the same in a full-length song and comes out significantly sillier. Yet, “Look Out” somehow pulls it off with probably the only singer who could get away with such a thing, as Jones makes the interlude feel surprisingly sincere before ripping into the final chorus.
As one of the more directly fan-servicing Monkees songs — just imagine all the Marys and Sandras who wore out their copies — I would argue that “Look Out” inadvertently defined the new teen idol bubblegum sound that would stretch into the ‘70s and be taken up by the likes of Donny Osmond and David Cassidy.
“Look Out,” however, holds up much better, transcending age and era with its strong songwriting and excellent production. The danceable beat, delightful vocals, and fun touches like the cheerful organ and handclaps work together to make “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” one of the quintessential early Monkees songs, perfectly encapsulating the irresistible sound that made them so successful. — Gretchen Unico
25) “Tapioca Tundra” (1968)
Appears on: The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees
In some ways, this song hails from the most mature Monkees album. That said, it was also the most broken. It’s almost a stretch to call this a Monkees song, since Nesmith is the only Monkee to perform on it, and he handles it pretty solitarily. “Tapioca Tundra” was one of several Nesmith songs, along with “Magnolia Simms” on the same album, inspired by ’20s and ’30s recordings, influenced both by the style and production of a bygone era.
The sound, a mix of ’60s techniques with older ones, turns out to be unique and memorable. Prior to adding music, however, Nesmith had written the lyrics as a poem, a hobby of his developed due to his desire to make songs with more lyrical substance than that of the other Monkees songwriters. To that point, I recommend taking a look at the lyrics by themselves, because they have perfect cadence.
More recently, audiences were pleasantly shocked to see this song on setlists in 2012. Nesmith said the song was one of the most frequently requested Monkees songs. Being a less common album track and a B-side, it might be hard to understand the relationship fans have with this song. That’s why the meaning of it is so fitting. Nesmith has stated that the song is about “[a performer realising] the songs he/she sings belong to the people — the fans and the crowds — that love the song, and the performer is only there in service to that relationship.” — Emma Sedam
24) “You Just May Be The One” (1967)
Appears on: Headquarters
Michael Nesmith states in Andrew Sandoval’s The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story of the ’60s TV Pop Sensation that “You Just May Be the One” was “one of [my] first attempts at writing pop music. But, of course, I still had this sensibility of country and a kind of Latin thing that was going on, to keep the lyrics simple: a very straight-ahead, pop sensibility.” How interesting that what resulted from these efforts is a beautiful and sensitive song with a folk-rock feel. “You Just May Be The One” is quintessential mid-’60s Nesmith: blending his country roots with his obligation to write accessible pop music for the Monkee machine.
Initially recorded during Nesmith’s sessions with studio musicians in July of 1966 (which is the version represented in the YouTube clip above), it was re-recorded by the Monkees themselves on March 16, 1967 for their third album, Headquarters. Although the TV version has an enjoyable lightness to it, the Headquarters version is the winner here: a snapshot of the Monkees as a real Band with a capital B.
The Monkees had already gotten used to playing this song themselves on tour, and it shows. They sound like a wonderfully tight ensemble here, and they’ve never felt more like a more cohesive, singular unit during the song’s soaring and beautiful bridge. The joyousness of the recording session permeates this version; finally, the four actors-turned-music group were allowed to do exactly what they wanted at the time: make music together. Peter Tork has said that recording Headquarters was his time with the Monkees that he enjoyed most.
The entire song lasts no longer than two minutes, but they’re two minutes that are emblematic of what makes the folk/rock blend of so much Sixties pop so great and still relevant today. — Louie Pearlman
23) “Words” (1967)
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
Less than two years after their television premiere, the Monkees were no longer just a group of actors playing a fictional band on TV; Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Mike Nesmith became the Monkees. They took ownership of their sound, starting with their third album, Headquarters; by the time they recorded Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., their fourth album, they’d come into their own.
“Words” is a perfect example of this more mature period of their career. Its dark theme of confronting a girlfriend’s lies at the end of their relationship, its minor key, and its psychedelic instrumentation set the scene for this serious — and probably drug-fueled — confrontation. The song is incredibly powerful, with harmonies so close and intricate they could be mistaken for the Mamas and the Papas or the Byrds. Dolenz’s lead vocals, echoed by Tork’s deeper baritone, play off one another perfectly — sexy, mature, and haunting.
Recorded for their second album, More of the Monkees, the song was shelved and then later re-recorded for PACJ Ltd., this time, under the Monkees’ musical direction (the original was released on the deluxe remaster of More of the Monkees and can be heard here). The subtle changes made for the later recording give it a darker, more mysterious quality that wasn’t present in the original, changes that help it fit perfectly into the soundscape of PACJ Ltd. and the overall mood of the music of 1967.
Written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, it speaks to these songwriters’ immense talent that the same duo who created so many of the band’s earliest and more straightforward tracks were also behind this complex and multi-layered piece. “Words” was a hit, reaching #11 on the charts. An excellent song from one of the band’s best albums. –Erika White
22) “I’m a Believer” (1966)
Appeared on: More of the Monkees
Unlike most of my colleagues here at REBEAT, I’m not someone who knows the Monkees’ catalog inside and out, and in fact, beyond their chart records, I really don’t know a lot of their music. But I do know a fair amount about ’60s music in general, and I know that the Neil Diamond-penned, Jeff Barry-produced “I’m A Believer” was #1 for an amazing seven weeks in 1966 and into 1967 — during the 1960s, only “Hey Jude” and “Theme from a Summer Place” were at #1 longer (nine weeks each).
It was the #1 selling record of 1967, it eventually sold more than 10 million copies, and… I mean, what more do I need to say? Who doesn’t know this song? On a personal level, my main iTunes playlist is called “All Time Top 200,” which, as the title indicates, contains my Top 200 favorite songs; this is one of the most often-played songs on the list.
Just as the single’s flipside “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”(#34) was a cover of a song Paul Revere and the Raiders had previously recorded, Diamond had recorded this song himself for his album Just for You. Don Kirshner convinced Diamond to let the Monkees record it, and the results speak for themselves.
Not everyone loved it, of course, and just as Mike Nesmith had been a naysayer about “Valleri” (#49), he didn’t care for this song either. A complaining Nesmith told Jeff Barry “I’m a songwriter, and that’s no hit.” Barry banned him from the studio while Micky Dolenz recorded his vocals, and the rest, as they say, is history. — Rick Simmons
21) “Daily Nightly” (1967)
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
I have to admit it’s a little weird for me to be writing about a song that, when I was 11 or 12 and first discovering the Monkees, I really hated. The only episodes of the show I had were those included on the Our Favorite Episodes VHS, and when this video capped the end of “Fairy Tale,” my favorite episode on the tape, it was agony. “Daily Nightly” was just too weird, nonsensical, and blatantly un-Monkeeish. Which is probably what the 11 year olds thought in 1967, too.
Over the years, it’s become stuff of Monkees legend, mostly revolving around the use of Micky Dolenz’s Moog synthesizer, arguably the first-ever appearance of the otherwordly instrument on a pop recording. The instrument makes this fantastical song sound incredibly complex, when in reality, it’s laughably simple, featuring only Dolenz on Moog, Michael Nesmith on electric guitar, Peter Tork on organ, album producer and frequent Monkees collaborator Chip Douglas on bass, and session musician Eddie Hoh on drums. And, truthfully, even without the adventurous addition, it probably would have still made this countdown.
Complementing the squeaks and squeals of Dolenz’s Moog are Michael Nesmith’s lyrics. Nesmith was inspired by the Sunset Strip curfew riots that past November, a controversial clash between teenagers and the law involving fire, protests, and something akin to mass hysteria around the Pandora’s Box nightclub. Artists of the time were immediately invested in the happenings, provoking pages of impassioned essays in music rags like Hit Parader and songs describing what transpired.
The Monkees themselves were right in the middle of the controversy — literally. They were asked in an interview tag at the end of “Find the Monkees,” aka, “The Audition,” about the riots, inspiring Micky Dolenz to famously quip, “A lot of…journalists don’t know how to spell ‘demonstration,’ so they use the word ‘riot’ because it only has four letters.” Nesmith himself spoke at length about the rights of young people and would later commemorate the events in a poem that became the lyrics to “Daily Nightly.”
More of a stream-of-consciousness metaphor and less of a pop song, it’s not hard to see why it might have confused many preteen fans. As of late, however, it’s become a highlight of Monkees tours when Nesmith himself performs the Moog parts — without the Moog. (Oh, just watch the video and you’ll know what I mean.)
It stands as a real touchstone of the Monkees’ catalog, not only because of its groundbreaking musical achievements, but as one of the only tunes to be tied directly to current events of its day. And for the record, it’s now one of my very favorite Monkees songs. — Allison Johnelle Boron