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 4, spotlighting some of our favorites that didn’t make the list along the way. Enjoy!
50) “Cuddly Toy” (1967)
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
We kick off our list with “Cuddly Toy,” a song penned by Harry Nilsson, who, in 1967, was just starting his ascent to becoming one of the era’s most highly respected songwriters. “[I] loved Cuddly Toy,” says Michael Nesmith, remembering the first time he heard it. “I said, ‘Oh man, we gotta do this.’”
The first song recorded for the Monkees’ fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones Ltd., on April 26, 1967, “Cuddly Toy” is a bright, British-Music-Hall charmer with a dark undercurrent. Producer Chip Douglas did a deft job of hiding the questionable lyrics (about a promiscuous girl at best and a gangbang at worst and a — ahem — “marital aid” somewhere in the middle) behind some chipper turns from Peter Tork on piano, Nesmith on breezy acoustic guitar, and Micky Dolenz on drums and backing vocals. However, this song belongs to lead vocalist Davy Jones and his delightful showmanship. He really sells the cheeriness of the song — a real contrast to those creepy lyrics.
I don’t know if the content of this song would make it past the producers for a made-for-TV group like the Monkees now, but it’s great that it did then. “Cuddly Toy” truly is one of the Monkees’ most subtly subversive songs. You’re not the only choo-choo train that was left out in the rain, indeed. — Louie Pearlman
49) “Valleri” (1968)
Appears on: The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees
In many ways, “Valleri” is an odd little song with an exceptional pedigree. Recorded in late 1967, the song was written by accomplished songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who also wrote “Last Train to Clarksville,” “(Theme from) The Monkees,” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” (though that’s a complicated story for later). By the spring of 1968, the song peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts, and also went to #1 in Cashbox and in Canada.
Surprisingly, the chart version was not the same version that appeared on the television series in early 1967, and I actually prefer the more polished charting version — though not everyone feels that way. The often irascible, and in this case hyperbolic, Mike Nesmith said “Valleri” was “the worst single I have ever heard in my life” or something to that effect (it’s hard to find the exact, original quote – but you get the idea). Nesmith’s opinion notwithstanding, “Valleri” was obviously popular and would in fact be the group’s last Top 10 hit single.
Why do I like this song? Probably because it’s so unusual. There’s session musician Louie Shelton’s flamenco guitar, electric guitar riffs that are reminiscent of the Stones, the standard peppy-poppy rhythms and choruses, then the horn section that gives it a brassy, Stax-like sound. Maybe it’s imitative, but every part contributes to the whole and makes it a very unique recording. Though it ranks low in our REBEAT Monkees countdown, it’s in my top five list of Monkees recordings. — Rick Simmons
48) “Early Morning Blues and Greens” (1967)
Appears on: Headquarters
Having previously collaborated on “Your Auntie Grizelda,” as well as the theme song to The Flying Nun, Diane Hildebrand and Jack Keller penned this imagery-riddled piece. Hildebrand herself recorded the song for her album of the same name. While her version was not without positive qualities, nothing truly beats Davy Jones’ delivery, backed by surprisingly strong vocals from Peter Tork. There’s an element of Simon and Garfunkel provided by both the type of lyricism and the fit of the melody and harmony, but with Tork’s fantastical psychedelic organ work, the track takes on a very original sound.
While this song obviously lacked commercial success, it shows a kind of maturity most people don’t expect from the Monkees. In a way, the song breaks many stereotypes one would expect from a pop group, even as a ballad. There’s no chorus, the title isn’t mentioned in the song, and if you read the lyrics, they seem like poetry on their own. I love the song’s use of instrumentation, with Michael Nesmith on 12-string guitar, Micky Dolenz on drums, and Tork on keys, while the album’s producer, Chip Douglas, provides the prominent bass intro and then mostly fades into the background. Buried among the other great songs on Headquarters, “Early Morning Blues and Greens” is something of a forgotten gem and one of my favorites. — Emma Sedam
47) “Salesman” (1967)
Appears on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
Primarily recorded in June 1967 at the same recording sessions that yielded Monkees classics “Words” and “Daydream Believer,” “Salesman” was written by Michael Nesmith’s colleague Craig Smith and is a great vehicle for Nesmith’s country-tinged vocals. What starts off as a song presumably about an old-time traveling salesman clearly reveals itself as a metaphor for a drug dealer as the lyrics progress. There’s no mistaking the innuendo as Nesmith sings, “You’re sailin’ so high, high, high” during the bridge.
Like “Cuddly Toy,” this is an example of the Monkees bringing hippie culture to the masses through their TV sets in a way that was coded and digestible for their tween target audience.
“Salesman” is featured in my favorite Monkees episode, “The Devil and Peter Tork,” in which Michael Nesmith not only sings the song, but also delivers the best speech that has ever been on television hands down ever sorry and no one can argue with me on this so there. — Louie Pearlman
46) “(Theme From) The Monkees” (1966)
Appears on: The Monkees
Ba-dum! Here it comes: the song that introed the Monkees to the world. Originally recorded as a demo in 1965 by songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, this track was legendarily inspired by literally walking down the street in Laurel Canyon while humming the Dave Clark Five’s “Catch Us If You Can” and ultimately landed Boyce and Hart the gig of songwriting and producing the Monkees early on.
The 51-second version of the song used to intro the TV show does a deft job of setting up who the boys are (the Monkees), what they’re doing (walking down the street), and how they’re received (getting the funniest looks from everyone they meet… because of their long hair, obviously). It also illustrates the struggles of being a Monkee. If you’re going to be in this band, people will — shockingly — accuse you of monkeying around. But luckily, the Monkees are too focused on singing to resort to petty drama and insults (“we’re too busy singin’ to put anybody down”).
The second verse aims at calming down the square parents who might be watching with their kids. It states that the Monkees in question are not the subversive, threatening hippies that were beginning to take over the counterculture of the era but instead are just trying to be friendly, singing, and playing goofballs. However, that verse ends with the almost contradictory statement that “we’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say,” which never fails to give me chills. And that’s the way the Monkees broke into homes and brought so many awesome, subversive ideas and music into the middle-American cultural landscape.
The album version has a great instrumental break rave-up that totally rocks it. It’s weird that the Monkees don’t actually perform a full version of this live when they play; it’s like they’re somewhat embarrassed to since, after all, it is a ’60s TV theme song often sharing sentences with The Addams Family and Green Acres. But I think we would all love to hear it. — Louie Pearlman
45) “All the King’s Horses” (1966)
Appears on: Previously unreleased; included on Missing Links, Vol. 2
It’s almost hard to believe that Michael Nesmith penned such a poppy piece for The Monkees. “All the Kings Horses” was recorded during what was only the second session by the group and the first to not only include Nesmith but also feature him as producer. Despite inclusion of a different version in season one’s “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth,” the album version of the song remained unreleased for years, finally making its way onto Missing Links, Vol. 2 in 1990.
I love the dichotomy of the sad lyrics with the upbeat instrumentation. Nesmith’s original version (by Mike, John & Bill) wasn’t quite so upbeat, although the arrangement wasn’t changed immensely so much as supplemented and electrified for the Monkees.
I can’t decide if it was a deliberate dig at the show’s youthful intended audience when Nesmith presented this song referencing Humpty-Dumpty early on or if it’s just a clever metaphor that would somewhat coincidentally resonate with the kids just stepping out of nursery rhymes and into pop music. Either way, I loved the song when I was young and watching the show, and I love it now. While it may not be Nesmith’s most complex composition, it’s an early testament of his quality as a young songwriter and a fantastic pop tune. — Emma Sedam
44) “St. Matthew” (1968)
Appears on: Previously unreleased; included on Missing Links, Vol. 2
In mid-1968, Michael Nesmith traveled to Nashville to shake up production and work with a bang-up crew of local pros. Though the offspring of these sessions would include precursors to Nesmith’s post-Monkees First National Band project (like “Some of Shelly’s Blues” and “Hollywood”), he took advantage of the city’s spoils to record “St. Matthew,” a track that, by this time, had already been through the ringer back home at RCA Studios in Hollywood with little success. In Nashville, however, it blossomed.
“St. Matthew” paints a vivid, lifelike image of an ethereal woman who almost seems less saint-like and more like a transient wizard. Its lyrics were inspired, some maybe more copped, directly from Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs With Me,” particularly the shared themes of “steal/kneel.” Indeed, it’s almost a sequel to that Dylan track; as Nesmith explains, in his mind, St. Matthew is the woman Dylan described, a biblical figure representing the holy ghost.
Pairing a country fiddle with layers of fuzz-filled instrumentation filtered (along with Nesmith’s lead vocal) through a rotating speaker to give it even more of an ominous, almost eerie feel, it’s a standout track of the Nashville sessions. Like many of the other tracks produced during this period, it wouldn’t see the light of day until its inclusion as a bonus track on the original reissue of Instant Replay, then on compilations including Missing Links, Vol. 2, and the Listen to the Band box set in 1991. In writing for this list, I also discovered its acoustic, Johnny-Cash-meets-Link-Wray cousin and was blown away, although its final versions were definitely benefited from Nesmith swapping out lines like “standing in a lunch line” — it’s hard to picture the radiance of a saint waiting for a graying hamburger at a cafeteria.
A disciple of the Missing Links series from the very early days of discovering the Monkees, “St. Matthew” was always one of my very favorite tracks. I loved the juxtaposition of this lush, almost swamp-like, arrangement with Nesmith’s mysterious vocal and lyrics, not to mention the concept of a female savior. As far as multi-faceted, versatile, and otherwordly Michael Nesmith songs go, this takes the cake. Maybe it wasn’t meant for the Monkees, but it’s definitely worthy of inclusion on any list. — Allison Johnelle Boron
43) “I Don’t Think You Know Me” (1966)
Appears on: Previously unreleased; included on Missing Links, Vol. 1, and as bonus tracks
The fact that “I Don’t Think You Know Me” appears here may say more about the quality of its lyricists than its recordings; it’s gone down in history as the Monkees song that never quite worked — no matter who sang it. In fact, recordings exist with each group member taking a turn on leads (minus Davy Jones, who shared the mic on Peter Tork’s version).
Penned by the legendary duo Goffin and King (their first appearance on this list — most certainly not their last), the narrative is progressive for a time when the youth of America was just embarking on a free-thinking mission, breaking the traditions of older generations and their expectations of marriage, family, and career as the mark of an adult. Lyrics like, “If you think my goals could be so trivial and small/I don’t think you know me at all” are directed at a vapid, vain lover who has little to offer someone with lofty ambitions, but it’s easy to translate that into a statement not unlike, “We’re the young generation/and we’ve got something to say.”
The song’s genesis stems from the first Michael Nesmith sessions, a bone thrown from show-runners Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider as a way to kinda-sorta make good on their word that the four actors would have some say in the music. However, it was Boyce and Hart who dubbed Micky Dolenz’s lead vocal onto Nesmith’s tracking tape. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with Nesmith, who recorded his own version. (The combination of these two vocals would become the version heard later as a bonus track on the 1994 reissue of The Monkees.) This is the version that’s most successful — you’re pretty much guaranteed a commercially viable recording with Micky Dolenz on lead, and the combination of his vocal with Nesmith’s has been (and always will be, as we’ll see later) is pure money.
Later, the song was rerecorded and tapped as a way to feature more of Tork on the second album, and producer Jeff Barry chose to pair him with Jones, who complained the arrangement was “way out of his range” — a musical mismatch all the way around. Thus, “I Don’t Think You Know Me” never made it out of the can in the ’60s, but has become a storied relic in the last few decades, as much for its intriguing lyrics as for its odd fit in the Monkees’ catalog.
There were a number of years I dubbed this my favorite Monkees song, believe it or not. Granted, those were probably when I was in college and still coming out of that “whatever, you don’t know me” phase that’s not at all embarrassing to look back on years later. Still, I think there’s something to be said for a song that touts knowing what you really want, believing in the path you’ve set for yourself, and not compromising — no matter what others expect. — Allison Johnelle Boron
42) “Mary, Mary” (1967)
Appears on: More of the Monkees
Though many of the songs on their first two albums weren’t penned by Monkees themselves, “Mary, Mary” put Mike Nesmith’s songwriting chops and nascent producing on full display, while at the same time, resulting in yet another sad example of naysayers trying to deny the guys their musical talent.
However, it would seem that one well-respected group was vouching for the Monkees before they even formed when the Paul Butterfield Blues Band gave “Mary, Mary” its first official release on their 1966 album East-West. But for whatever reason, when the record went to press, no songwriting credit was listed for the tune. Thus, when the Monkees came out with their version a few months later, with Nesmith’s name clearly printed alongside the title, a number of blues fans — let’s face it, probably all music snobs — took umbrage with what they perceived to be fraudulence and wrote in their complaints in to Butterfield’s label, Elektra, only to learn that Nesmith was, in fact, the rightful composer.
In the years since that incident, “Mary, Mary” has become much more associated with the Monkees, appearing in five different episodes of their TV show. Though hip-hop legends Run-DMC would have some success with their unique take on the tune in 1988, many would still reasonably claim that the Monkees’ version reigns supreme, with no small thanks to an impressive studio lineup, featuring Wrecking Crew legends like Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel, and even Glen Campbell delivering the iconic opening guitar lick. Though surprisingly never released as a single, “Mary, Mary” is arguably one of the best tracks on More of the Monkees, as catchy as it is memorable, and an early glimpse of what the Monkees were capable of when permitted to write their own material. — Gretchen Unico
41) “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day” (1966)
Appears on: The Monkees
“Tomorrow’s Gonna be Another Day” premiered in The Monkees’ second episode, the adorable and ridiculous horror movie spoof “Monkee See, Monkee Die.” Written by Tommy Boyce and Steve Venet, it’s got all the ingredients of perfect early Monkees song: a distinctive guitar riff, a singable and memorable melody, a tinge of country twang, and even a “hey-hey-hey-hey” chorus.
Only one Monkee — Micky Dolenz on lead vocals — appears on the recording; session musicians provided the remaining vocals and instrumentation. This was the norm for their debut album, as eight of the 12 tracks featured only a single band member, and no song featured all four Monkees at once. This setup fell away quickly as the band began to take ownership of their music and come into their own as musicians and songwriters.
While it was never released as a single and was likely overshadowed by the similar-sounding “Last Train to Clarksville” from the same album, it’s a bright and enduring dose of classic Monkees sunshine pop. And its positive message about rebounding after a painful breakup makes it one of my favorites. Even though it starts out sad — “I’m gonna pack up all my pain” — the Monkees look to the future with lyrics about starting over that rival some of pop music’s most empowering post-breakup songs. — Erika White
Cover photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features