1959: 'Mack the Knife'
Artist: Bobby Darin
Modernizing an old musical number by way of a jazzy swing beat, Bobby Darin delivered this #1 hit in 1959. Beyond the catchy melodies are dark lyrics about bodies “oozin' life” and cement bags “just a droopin' on down.” Both New York's WABC radio station and the BBC banned the song, fearing it would inspire real-life knife attacks.
1960: 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow'
Artist: The Shirelles
The first #1 single to come from an all-black female group, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is another song that might seem controversy-proof to today's audiences. However, it's sexual innuendos were enough to get it banned from radio stations back in 1960. Numerous cover versions would follow, including one from original co-writer Carole King.
1961: 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'
Artist: The Tokens
It would take decades for the true controversy to catch up to this ubiquitous pop song, which earned doo-wop outfit The Tokens its only #1 Billboard hit. Like so many others before and after, the group actually stole the song; failing to acknowledge it was originally created by a Zulu migrant worker named Solomon Linda. In 2006, Linda's descendants sued the Disney company over royalties and walked away with an undisclosed sum.
1962: 'He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)'
Artist: The Crystals
Some controversial tunes seem downright mild in retrospect, but not this one from The Crystals. Featuring a title that pretty much says it all, the song takes a gravely misguided approach toward the subject of domestic abuse. To make a creepy thing that much creepier, future convicted second-degree murderer Phil Spector produced the track.
1963: 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall'
Artist: Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan's early folk albums are jam-packed with so many great protest songs that it's hard to choose just one. That said, the apocalyptic tone of “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” gives it an element of perennial prescience in today's fragile landscape. Rumors persist (thanks in part to Dylan himself) that the song was directly inspired by the Cuban missile crisis, but he reportedly performed it live a month before the nuclear showdown took place.
1964: 'A Change is Gonna Come'
Artist: Sam Cooke
This bone-chilling classic was reportedly written just a few months after Sam Cooke and his entourage were turned away from a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, La. The song was also said to be inspired by Bob Dylan's civil rights anthem “Blowin' in the Wind,” which Cooke often performed live. Delivered with palpable passion, it punctuates brooding despair with moments of hope and inspiration.
1965: 'Eve of Destruction'
Artist: Barry McGuire
Condemning hatred and violence the whole world over, this veritable hit was widely perceived as a protest song against the Vietnam War. While the lyrics are devoid of curse words or drug references, they were nevertheless deemed obscene by a number of U.S. radio stations. Lines such as “you're old enough to kill but not for votin'” continue to resonate.
1966: 'Four Women'
Artist: Nina Simone
In telling the story of four African-American women, music legend Nina Simone conjured up a storm of vivid associations. Bringing slavery, trauma, and exploitation into the fold, she unleashes a cathartic howl. A legion of young and inspired women was listening.
1967: 'Light My Fire'
Artist: The Doors
It's no secret that 1967 represented a year of cultural upheavals, but someone forgot to tell “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Upon booking The Doors for a live performance of “Light My Fire,” producers requested that the word “higher” be replaced with the word “better.” Lead singer Jim Morrison forged ahead with the original lyrics and got the group banned from the show posthaste.
1968: 'Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)'
Artist: James Brown
Keeping both feet squarely in the funk arena, James Brown imparted with this socially conscious anthem in 1968. Released on an album of the same name, it addressed issues of racism and the ongoing need for black empowerment. Brown rallied behind Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey that same year.