It is tempting to write that the 45 RPM single is a dying art form, but the truth is it already has been dead for about 20 years now.
Initially introduced by RCA Records in the 1940s as a solution to the bulky and brittle 78 RPM record, the 45 was a sleek innovation for the postwar world: Smaller, lighter, plastic, and easy to hold, thanks to its signature "doughnut hole" center. The latter made it easy for children to carry, whose newfound disposable income made them the principle target of this new format.
Around the same time that the 45 was being developed, so was a sleek new form of postwar music: Rock and roll. Just in case the connection wasn't clear enough, the first R&B 45 ever released was Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right," which less than a decade later would be Elvis Presley's first release - and, as some like to tell it, The First Rock and Roll Record ever. To learn more about the former or the latter, consult the work of my friend Jim Dawson, author of 45 RPM: The History, Heroes & Villains of a Pop Music Revolution and co-author with Steve Propes of What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?, both of which are definitive (and insanely readable) works on their respective subject matters.
But my focus here is not on history -- territory that Mr. Dawson has already more than aptly covered -- but rather excellence.
Growing up in the twilight of the 45 -- the only one I remember being bought around the house was my older sister's purchase of Prince's 1989 "Batdance" single that she couldn't find on cassette; my parents told her that this was a waste of money since it could only be played on the family record player, which we were using less and less -- I had to reconstruct their significance in retrospect. I don't know if I really ever got it until I came across Greil Marcus' essay "Treasure Island" in a reprint of the seminal collection of essays he edited, Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island.
The book had originally come out in the late 1970s and his essay remained un-updated. In building what he considered to be a complete collection of rock and roll music, he relied heavily on singles, and only used long-playing albums for when the artist's work merited it. Although he wrote a blurb for every single album included, he did not do so for the many singles in between. He did this "because space prohibited it and because most singles stand on their own, so many of them glorious one-shots from performers with only one thing to say or worth hearing."
But even the artists whose work was represented by many albums -- such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones -- still had singles filling in the gaps. For example, to cover the late Beatles period, he simply included "Don't Let Me Down" as a single, which can indeed be heard as a sort of rough and passioned farewell; to get Elvis's '70s work, he was just as frugal: "Burning Love." Again, I can see his point, on a desert island, what more Elvis from this period do you really need? The power of the one record can speak for them all.
Being a romantic of the past -- "Oh how I love things as they used to be," goes the correlating Kinks line -- I kept an eye out on what was released on 45s and what kind of statement this small two-song record could make. (I soon learned this was even more so with British bands, where the country's practice of was on an album and what was on a single was strictly segregated; America initially also worked this way, but seems to have dissolved the divide between the two in the late '50s.)
When I began collecting rock and roll trinkets and treasures to line cabin walls and basement panelling, I soon learned that 45s were a very cheap, cool-looking thing to have. I also began to realize how freaking good they could be. The watershed came with the first 45 I bought, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" by the Beatles. I found it mind-blowing that two such amazing songs were on the opposite sides of each other -- and this coming from someone who always found Sgt. Pepper to be fine, but rather boring. This did not get past the Beatles' inner-circle; producer George Martin has called his decision to release their two strongest tracks as they began work on what would become Sgt. Pepper was the biggest mistake of his professional career. I for one certainly think the album would've been vastly improved by the inclusion of these two songs.
But George Martin's loss is the 45 record's gain. Growing up in the CD age, I always had to piece back together singles and chronologies retrospectively, usually aided by books or the always-excellent liner notes of Rhino Records' reissues. Using "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" -- "The first concept 45?" Marcus suggests in "Treasure Island" -- as the gold standard, I kept a running track in the back of my head of other singles that seemed mind-blowingly perfect, bringing together two songs (or sometimes two parts of one epic song) that were as good, if not better, than the best albums that rock and roll had to offer.
Now that it's summer, I've been listening to a lot of the Beach Boys, obsessively stacking their 45s into digital playlists based on chronologies and chart positions. Some of these sounded to me like the finest 45s ever recorded, so to see how they measure up, I finally compiled the list below of "The 45 Best 45 RPM Records."
This is not a list of the greatest rock and roll singles. That would have to include songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and "Like a Rolling Stone," each of which had relatively lackluster flipsides ("This Boy," "The Spider and the Fly," and "Gates of Eden," respectively). In order to be a great 45, BOTH sides need to be amazing. Some of these singles were flukes, where the intended A-side turned out to be just as popular as the B-side (see #2) or radio stations were unwilling to play the A-side for whatever reason and turned the other side into a hit (see #3). While listings of rock and roll discographies are nothing but maddeningly inconsistent, I did my best to decipher what the originally intended A and B side were upon the record's release, and put them in that order. In many cases, the call on which is the A-side and which is the B-side is virtually interchangeable (see #6, #22, and #23, among many others).
Furthermore, I resolved any ambiguities between American and UK releases by going along with the country in which the artist is from or originally released the record. The exception that proves the rule is Jimi Hendrix, for whom I went with the UK "Hey Joe"/"Stone Free" (as opposed to the American release with "51st Anniversary" as the B-side) because, even though Hendrix was American, he was recording and performing in England and the UK single reflects how he intended the single to be released. Finally, I kept it narrowed to the rock and roll era (roughly 1954 onwards), which meant cutting out scores of great blues and country records, many of which fell outside of what I considered the rock and roll genre (and, for the older ones anyway, only released on 78).
So all that said, here's my list of The 45 Best 45 RPM Records ever recorded:
- "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane," The Beatles, 1967
- "Don't Be Cruel"/"Hound Dog," Elvis Presley, 1956
- "Let's Spend the Night Together"/"Ruby Tuesday," The Rolling Stones, 1967
- "Bo Diddley"/"I'm a Man," Bo Diddley, 1955
- "I Get Around"/"Don't Worry Baby," The Beach Boys, 1964
- "I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her"/"Mystery Train," Elvis, Scotty and Bill, 1955
- "Subterranean Homesick Blues"/"She Belongs to Me," Bob Dylan, 1965
- "Great Balls of Fire"/"You Win Again," Jerry Lee Lewis, 1957
- "I Wanna Be Your Dog"/"1969," The Stooges, 1969
- "What'd I Say, Parts 1 & 2," Ray Charles, 1959
- "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky," Elvis, Scotty and Bill, 1954
- "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine, Parts 1 & 2," James Brown, 1970
- "Wouldn't It Be Nice"/"God Only Knows," The Beach Boys, 1966
- "Hey Joe"/"Stone Free," The Jimi Hendrix Experience
- "Honky Tonk Women"/"You Can't Always Get What You Want," The Rolling Stones, 1969
- "Up on Cripple Creek"/"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," The Band, 1969
- "Rip It Up"/"Ready Teddy," Little Richard, 1956
- "It's Too Late"/"I Feel the Earth Move," Carole King, 1971
- "Hey Ladies"/"Shake Your Rump," Beastie Boys, 1989
- "I Put a Spell on You"/"Little Demon," Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 1956
- "Dancing in the Dark"/"Pink Cadillac," Bruce Springsteen, 1984
- "Yellow Submarine"/"Eleanor Rigby," The Beatles, 1966
- "Down on the Corner"/"Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969
- "Peggy Sue"/"Everyday," Buddy Holly, 1957
- "Hey Jude"/"Revolution," The Beatles, 1968
- "My Adidas"/"Peter Piper," Run-D.M.C., 1986
- "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud, Parts 1 & 2," James Brown, 1968
- "Too Much Monkey Business"/"Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Chuck Berry, 1956
- "White Light/White Heat"/"Here She Comes Now," The Velvet Underground, 1968
- "Oh Boy!"/"Not Fade Away," The Crickets, 1957
- "I'm a Believer"/"(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone," The Monkees, 1966
- "White Riot"/"1977," The Clash, 1977
- "Cecilia"/"The Only Living Boy in New York," Simon & Garfunkel, 1970
- "Shout, Parts 1 & 2," The Isley Brothers, 1959
- "The Harder They Come"/"Many Rivers to Cross," Jimmy Cliff, 1972
- "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow"/"Boys," The Shirelles, 1960
- "Blue Suede Shoes"/"Honey Don't," Carl Perkins, 1956
- "19th Nervous Breakdown"/"As Tears Go By," The Rolling Stones, 1966
- "Searchin'"/"Young Blood," The Coasters, 1957
- "Sunny Afternoon"/"I'm Not Like Everybody Else," The Kinks, 1966
- "Sliver"/"Dive," Nirvana, 1990
- "Ooby Dooby"/"Go! Go! Go!," Roy Orbison, 1956
- "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper," The Beatles, 1965
- "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame"/"Little Sister," Elvis Presley, 1961
- "Anarchy in the U.K."/"I Wanna Be Me," The Sex Pistols, 1976