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!
Get caught up:
40) “Nine Times Blue” (1967)
Appears on: The Wichita Train Whistle Sings (Nesmith); included on Missing Links, Vol. 1 and as bonus tracks
In late 1967, the Los Angeles music scene was abuzz with talk of a major weekend recording session comprised of the who’s who of players, a supergroup to rival any other in history, and a “‘golden time’ for union members,” as Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine put it. Catered by LA’s exclusive dining spot Chasen’s, the entire operation cost upwards of a cool $50,000. And the man bankrolling this excessive creation? Michael Nesmith, of course.
Later held up as a way for a Monkee to attempt musical legitimacy, Nesmith initiated the sessions as a way to avoid paying the same princely sum in taxes — an indulgent write-off if there ever was one. The offspring recordings would become the all-instrumental The Wichita Train Whistle Sings and included versions of Monkees tracks like “Tapioca Tundra,” “Sweet Young Thing,” “Papa Gene’s Blues,” among others. One of the tunes was a song he’d demoed earlier but hadn’t yet found a home: “Nine Times Blue.”
A tender ballad of resignation and shades of embarrassment, “Nine Times Blue” is apologetic and kind, particularly in its more acoustic incarnations. While its inclusion on Wichita is lush, arranged to the nines, and complemented by a Latin-style break, its most well-known treatments feature the bare minimum. It’s these recordings that show a different side not only to the song but to Nesmith — possibly the last person in the quartet you’d expect to wave a white flag.
A much-beloved song in the Monkees catalog, “Nine Times Blue’s” only officially release during that era would be on Wichita; later, it became a staple of Nesmith’s first post-Monkees solo effort, the magnificent Magnetic South, in 1970. A shining example of a song that had been doctored up (probably for the hell of it) then successfully stripped down to its natural, glorious form, it stands as a symbol of simplicity and beauty — the rarest gem where the demo is as good as its final version. — Allison Johnelle Boron
39) “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (1967)
Appears on: Single only
For a fairly straightforward pop song, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” sure caused a fracas when first released as the Monkees’ third single in 1967. The problem wasn’t the song itself, but the behind-the-scenes politics of the way the song was recorded and released, and it ultimately became the breaking point in which the Monkees demanded complete control over their music.
The storm was already brewing before “A Little Bit Me…” was even recorded. In an effort to at least get more material on the singles, the Monkees were open to contributing original tracks as B-sides backing surefire hits sanctioned by Monkees music supervisor Don Kirshner. Kirshner, however, was uninterested in using their songs at all.
This resulted in Jones recording vocals for this and several other tracks (including “Love to Love,” which was recently included on the Monkees’ latest release Good Times!) without the other Monkees’ knowledge. “A Little Bit Me…” was then released in Canada as a single in March 1967, backed with “She Hangs Out” without the permission of Monkees‘ producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider or the Monkees themselves.
After the single leaked in the US, the RayBert/Monkees coalition was none too happy and promptly fired Kirshner. The single was then properly released in the US with the Michael Nesmith-penned and Monkees-performed track “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” as the new B-side. After this debacle, the Monkees were done with the corporate hand steering the ship, and thus, a made-for-TV band became a legit rock act, calling the shots on its musical destiny — for better or worse.
As the band moved towards its full emancipation with the wholly DIY album Headquarters, it makes sense that this single would have left a sour taste in their mouths. All of this is a shame because looked at independently of the behind-the-scenes drama, “A Little Bit Me…” is a real gem, penned by Neil Diamond and produced by Jeff Barry, the team who had delivered the highly successful second single “I’m A Believer” for the band four months earlier.
Although thematically similar to the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” released two years earlier, Diamond’s deft lyrical skills make the subject matter of the song feel fresh and new. The lyrics tell an interesting story of someone in a relationship who has the guts to realize that he or she may be the one causing problems. The sensitive and nuanced male viewpoint of the song is refreshing in a musical era that has too many one-sided songs about a girl breaking a boy’s heart. Also, the Diamond-penned guitar hook is instantly memorable. Here’s Diamond himself rocking out during a live rendition of the song recorded at NYC’s Bitter End in August 1967.
Musically, the utilization of crack session players Hugh McCracken and Don Thomas on six- and twelve-string guitar and Stan Free on a killer clavinet solo give the song a snap and groove reminiscent of Kirshner and Barry’s future work on the Archies (and I mean that as a compliment!). This is Kirshner-era Monkees at it’s best: swingin’, complex, and very, very fun. — Louie Pearlman
38) “Daddy’s Song” (1968)
Appears on: Head
Like “Cuddly Toy” (#50) before it, “Daddy’s Song” is a Harry Nilsson-penned Davy Jones showcase with a sparkling backing track and a thoroughly charming vocal masking dark subject matter. Who knew daddy issues could be so catchy?
“Daddy’s Song” is also one of the musical and cinematic highlights of the movie Head: Davy’s in full-on Broadway mode as he and Toni Basil tap and cavort in two different sequences, edited meticulously together. As Frank Zappa observes at the end of the sequence taking a talking cow for a walk (as one does), the song is pretty white, but Davy has been working hard on his dancing. — Carey Farrell
37) “While I Cry” (1969)
Appears on: Instant Replay
Michael Nesmith first released “While I Cried” on The Wichita Train Whistle Sings [see #40, “Nine Times Blue”], then recorded “While I Cry” for The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees in 1968, but for some reason, this moving masterpiece was shelved until Instant Replay. With the Monkees bonds beginning to fall apart, neither Jones nor Dolenz are featured on this track, although it does feature another frequent Monkees collaborator, Harry Nilsson, in an unidentified role (probably backing vocals).
Nesmith said he wrote the song around the guitar hook, which is almost hard to believe when you consider how strong the rest of the composition is. The emotional ballad discusses the inevitability of a cruelly failed relationship. The song has a lot of feeling to it and remains one of my favorite Nesmith compositions. — Emma Sedam
36) “Can You Dig It” (1968)
Appears on: Head
The Monkees’ obligatory foray into Eastern sounds is one of two Peter Tork-penned compositions featured in the movie Head. It’s a song of its time, with lyrics like “To sing that you can dig it is to make your soul to fly,” chanted over bongos and droning guitars.
As the song plays in Head, the boys preside (with varying degrees of interest) over a harem of belly dancers. It’s a scene that doesn’t play nearly as well to a modern audience with a better understanding of sexism and cultural appropriation, but at least Micky’s having a good time — that is, until the scene dissolves, and the end of his hookah transforms into the finger of an annoyed Teri Garr.
While Micky’s lovely vocal appears in the film and on the original soundtrack, it’s Peter’s more impassioned vocal take, featured on the Rhino reissue of the soundtrack, that I return to most often. — Carey Farrell
35) “Star Collector” (1967)
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
“Star Collector” combines the inimitable songwriting talents of Gerry Goffin and Carole King with some standout lead vocals from Davy Jones, who proves he can rock out with the best of them. Bright and uptempo, this song gets an added psychedelic vibe through use of a Moog synthesizer, famous for bringing that trippy feeling to many a pop song, circa 1967.
In fact, the Monkees were Moog pioneers: Micky Dolenz owned the third Moog ever sold, and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. was the first in a long line of albums featuring the instrument. Peter Tork wasn’t fond of the Moog on this track, performed by session musician Paul Beaver (he preferred Dolenz’s solo on “Daily Nightly,” also on this album), so a version without the Moog was also cut. The Moog-free track was used on one out of the five second-season episodes featuring the song, “The Wild Monkees.”
For all the innocence and playfulness of the Monkees’ image, this song is a far cry from four sweet boys “trying to be friendly” and “too busy singing to put anybody down.” Look beyond the bouncy melody and carefree feel, and “Star Collector” is a cynical and bitter dismissal of fangirls and groupies. The song expresses outright disdain for their obsessiveness and fickle nature — “I think I’ll let her keep on going/Where ever it is, she’s goin’ to/Give her my autograph and tell her/It’s been nice knowing you” — topped off with the final nail in the coffin, “How can I love her, when I just don’t respect her?” That’s just harsh, man. — Erika White
34) “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”(1966)
Appears on: More of the Monkees
The Monkees obviously benefited from working with some great songwriters, and this little gem is another Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart composition. But while they recorded a lot of songs that others had written, their hits generally weren’t cover versions of songs other groups had recorded. This was an exception.
Contemporaries Paul Revere and the Raiders had released “Steppin’ Stone” just a few months before on their album Midnight Ride in May 1966. The Raiders didn’t release it as a single, so the Monkees recorded it in July 1966 and it was released in November of that year.
Here’s the odd thing: the label may not have seen it as much more than a throwaway either — it was actually the B-side of the group’s biggest hit, “I’m a Believer.” Of course, “I’m a Believer” went to #1, but “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” did fine on its own, rising to #20 and becoming the group’s third Top 40 hit. By the way, just as with the last song in this survey I wrote about (“Valleri,” #49), you can find this song in several slightly different versions. — Rick Simmons
33) “Sweet Young Thing” (1966)
Appears on: The Monkees
“Sweet Young Thing” is a somewhat difficult song to describe, which may be the result of the unusual circumstances under which it was created. From the very beginning, Mike Nesmith was keen on writing his own music for the Monkees, while Screen Gems’ music head Don Kirshner preferred to rely on his stable of professional songwriters to fill the first album.
In a sort of compromise, Nesmith was set up with renowned songwriting duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Afterward, Nesmith reported that while he liked Goffin and King, he did not enjoy being forced to write with them, and in turn, Kirshner resented the rejection, feeling that a nobody like Nesmith should have flipped over the opportunity to work with two songwriting legends. In the end, however, some good did come out of the collaboration in the form of The Monkees‘ second-to-last track, “Sweet Young Thing.”
At first impulse, you might call this a country-rock tune due to its prominent fiddle, Southern-sounding title, and Mike Nesmith’s country-western leanings at the time. Yet, the song’s heavy layers of raucous sounds, including a pounding tambourine, bed of maracas, and harsh fuzz guitar give it an almost psychedelic edge. Meanwhile, Nesmith’s commanding vocals call to mind bluesy garage rock, embellishing the end of each chorus with a satisfied hiss — a rather sexual touch for the supposedly wholesome Monkees.
With so much power packed into less than two minutes, “Sweet Young Thing” can’t help but stand out on the album, immediately disproving anyone who might have assumed the Monkees were all sweet-sounding bubblegum. This truly unique number easily sets itself apart from anything else you might have heard on the radio in 1966, and still today, “Sweet Young Thing” boasts a distinct sound that’s hard to match. — Gretchen Unico
32) “Last Train to Clarksville” (1966)
Appears on: The Monkees
A month before TV audiences saw the Monkees walkin’ down the street, “Last Train to Clarksville” hit the airwaves. Two weeks after their television debut, it exploded into the cultural consciousness, shooting to #1 in the US and effectively blurring the lines between their fictitious TV personas and the reality of their chart-topping success. Its instant popularity established the Monkees’ signature style, from the infectious “sunshine pop” sound, to the jangly guitars, to Micky Dolenz’s distinctive vocals — sweet enough for the teenyboppers but with an undercurrent of slurred sensuality to entice more worldly listeners.
If you think this song is suspiciously Beatlesque, you’re right. From the start, creators based the show’s concept on A Hard Day’s Night, and songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart naturally wrote some of the Monkees’ earliest hits with the Fab Four in mind. “Last Train”’s was actually inspired by a Beatles mondegreen, as Hart thought Paul McCartney was singing “take the last train” at the end of “Paperback Writer.” Even the “oh-no-no-no” bit in the chorus was modeled after the Beatles’ famous “yeah yeah yeah” refrain.
While the Beatles references were pretty obvious, the song’s anti-war sentiment was more subtle. Beneath the upbeat, singable tune lies a sad request for a soldier’s girlfriend to come meet him before he ships out to Vietnam or escapes to Canada — “and I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.” He’s “feelin’ low,” and is looking forward to “coffee-flavored kisses and a bit of conversation” before facing his uncertain fate the next morning. Once you hear these lyrics for the sad tale they really tell, you’ll never dance quite as joyfully to this song again. (Sorry about that.) –Erika White
31) “Love is Only Sleeping”(1967 )
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, LTD.
In online chats about the Monkees, one might occasionally come across someone referring to a classic album-only track such as “I Wanna Be Free” or “You Just May Be the One” as “the single that never was,” meaning it more affectionately than factually. However, “Love is Only Sleeping” truthfully does that term one better by being “the single that almost was.”
Yes, Colgems did kick around the notion of presenting this Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil composition to the world as the follow-up A-side to “Pleasant Valley Sunday” in autumn 1967 (and if you think that was a questionable decision, that’s nothing compared to the fact that had this plan gone through, the soon-to-be-classic and world-famous “Daydream Believer” would have been a mere B-side).
Ultimately, Colgems reconsidered the idea of making an A-side of a song with a title that would have surely made radio programmers say “Hey, wait a minute…” — this was the year of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” after all — and instead promoted Davy Jones’ ode to Sleepy Jean to the topside. “Sleeping” was left off the single altogether.
In fairness, “Love is Only Sleeping” might not have been the wisest choice for a pop single anyway, with its strange time signature that seemed to be repeatedly skipping a beat and its adornment of crazy echo effects… or maybe that would have been perfect for 1967? Anyway, none of this subtracted from it being a fascinating recording with a fine song at its foundation.
Musically and lyrically, the mood was dark and eerie, as Michael Nesmith recalled a lover convinced her amorous feelings for him were dead and Nesmith attempting to convince her, ultimately successfully after an unspecified number of endless days and nights, that perhaps they just needed to be awoken. Along the way, all four Monkees contribute in some way to the aural phantasmagoric splendor. Nesmith sings and also plays electric guitar, Micky Dolenz and Jones add additional vocals, and Peter Tork plays that sinister organ that gets the last word.
“Love is Only Sleeping” appeared on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., an album with plenty of Nesmith involvement throughout — serving as track four, it was already the third track on the album to feature him on lead vocals. Pisces featured more Nez lead vocals than any other Monkees album, but only one song, “Don’t Call On Me,” both written and sung by him (his other composition for the album, “Daily Nightly,” was treated to Dolenz delivery).
While the end result didn’t surpass a certain other foursome’s song about only sleeping from the previous year, it was one mighty impressive record — one that can be enjoyed repeatedly through endless days and nights. — Michael Lynch