The Kinks' 20 greatest songs, ranked
13 March 2023, 13:19
Alongside their stunning concept albums, The Kinks were one of the greatest singles bands of the 1960s.
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As the years go on, The Kinks' classic concept albums like The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) are getting increasing amounts of love.
That's all well and good, but we should never forget that above all else The Kinks were maybe the greatest singles band of the 1960s.
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Backed by bassist Pete Quaife and drummer Mick Avory, brothers Ray and Dave Davies took the charts by storm over the decade with a run of hits at least the equal of The Beatles, The Who, The Small Faces and the rest.
But what are the very best songs by The Kinks?
We've rounded up just 20 of their finest moments and ranked them all the way to the very greatest for the ultimate best-of.
If The Kinks had split up in the mid-1970s, they would have been a festival-headlining band for their 1990s or '00s reunion.
Instead, they just kept plugging away as their star slowly faded. They never hit the success of their '60s heyday, but there's a sprinkling of fantastic music across their later years.
This 1982 single from the State of Confusion album was a rare late-era hit for the band, going to number 6 in the US (their joint-highest ever single there) and number 12 back home, while its fine Julien Temple-directed video got a fair bit of play on MTV.
'Come Dancing' is inspired by the tragic death of Ray Davies's sister Rene, who died dancing at the Lyceum ballroom when she was just 31, apparently the same evening she had given Ray his first guitar as a gift.
Where Have All the Good Times Gone
Originally the B-side to the admittedly superior 'Till The End of the Day', 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone' was still strong enough to appear on the band's third album, 1965's The Kinks Kontroversy.
"Our tour manager at the time, who was a lot older than us, said, 'That's a song a 40-year-old would write. I don't know where you get that from'," Ray said.
"But I was taking inspiration from older people around me. I'd been watching them in the pubs, talking about taxes and job opportunities."
It's been covered over the years by David Bowie, Van Halen and Supergrass.
Set Me Free
One of the band's more introspective singles, 'Set Me Free' tells the story of a fella wanting his love to "set him free", if he can't have her all to himself.
It reached 23 in the US and number nine back home, and has the distinction of being the band's first song to appear in a film – Ken Loach's BBC film Up The Junction.
Dedicated Follower of Fashion
A cheeky dig at the London scenesters clogging up the streets, 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion' had a nod at The Scarlet Pimpernel ("they seek him here, they seek him there") and was inspired by Ray's fisticuffs with an actual designer at a party.
The song The Kinks embrace a vaudeville/music hall sound for a standalone single that went all the way to number four in the UK in 1966.
Dead End Street
Another one of the band's stunning non-album singles, 'Dead End Street' mixed up both sides of the Kinks' '60s sensibilities – music hall and rock 'n' roll – shot through with a bit of trad jazz for good measure.
"'Dead End Street' was the epitome, to me, of what the Kinks were all about," said Dave in his memoir.
"A song full of character, pathos, yet containing an underlying sense of hope. Reflecting a fondness for the past but at the same time expressing a determination and yearning for change.
"Anguished voices calling to a heartless world. A world where the plight of the ordinary person mattered little. "
It was recorded in the brief period in 1966 where John Dalton had replaced Peter Quaife on bass after the latter had suffered a scooter accident, and reached number 5 in the UK singles chart.
I’m Not Like Everybody Else
Ray Davies wrote most Kinks songs himself and sung them too. Dave wrote a few which he took lead vocals on.
'I'm Not Like Everybody Else' was a bit of an exception, with Ray writing the storming proto-punk track for The Animals who inexplicably turned it down, so Dave took lead vocals to mix things up.
It was originally released as the B-side to the much more gentle 'Sunny Afternoon', but quickly became a fan favourite and pops up on all their best-ofs.
Tired of Waiting For You
Released ahead of second album Kinda Kinks on which it appeared, 'Tired of Waiting For You' topped the charts in the UK and scored as best-for-the-band number six in the US.
Dave Davies has called it the perfect pop song and it's hard to argue.
"The recording went well but there was something missing and it was my raunchy guitar sound," said Dave.
"Ray and I were worried that putting that heavy-sounding guitar on top of a ponderous song might ruin it. Luckily it enhanced the recording, giving it a more cutting, emotional edge."
The Kinks last album Phobia had came out in 1993, just before the peak of a Britpop scene that would give them the credit and love they had been unfairly missing the last couple of decades odd.
It was too long and padded out somewhat, but its highlights proved what those who had kept up long knew – the Kinks could always surprise you with a great single at any point in their career.
The closing track of Phobia and the band's last original single 'Scattered' was a beauiful study of mortality ("To the fields we are scattered / From the day we are born") that was dedicated to Ray's late mum Annie Florence Davies and friend Carol Bryans.
The Village Green Preservation Society
It's hard to pick out single moments from the Kinks' excellent run of concept albums. That's partly because the songs do work better in context on the LPs, but also because they were so packed with fantastic tunes.
We're choosing 'The Village Green Preservation Society', the opener/title track from 1968's classic because how much melody and joy it squeezes into its less-than-three minutes.
"Somebody said that one of the things the Kinks have been doing for the last three years is preserving nice things from the past, so I thought I'd write a song which said this," Ray explained of the lyrics.
Another concept album opener, the stomping, satirical 'Victoria' opened 1969's Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) stalled outside the top 60 in the US and only scraped to number 33 in the UK.
Its stature has grown though, helped along by a punky cover by The Fall in 1988 and a more recent version by The Kooks, who frequently record at Ray Davies's Konk studios.
Taken from (and its lyrics giving the title to) 1972's Everybody's in Show-Biz album, 'Celluloid Heroes' is one of the Kinks finest post-1960s moments.
Dave hasn't always said the loveliest things about Ray over the years, but he was effusive in his praise for this single, which namechecks total icons Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, Bela Lugosi, Bette Davis, George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Rooney.
"One of my favourite songs ever, by anybody," he told Guitar World. "I remember when we were just starting out down the road with tidying up the lyrics.
"That really filled me with a lot of emotion because it is quite an incredible idea anyway, all those stars, names and handprints being on those stars.
"There are all these great stars immortalised on pavement, in concrete."
Till The End of the Day
One of those powerful, punky, power-chord-driven early Kinks singles that elevated them above the throng of beat bands that came in the wake of The Beatles.
'Till The End of the Day' went to number 8 in the UK and appeared on The Kink Kontroversy album.
"That song was about freedom, in the sense that someone's been a slave or locked up in prison,' said Ray.
"It's a song about escaping something. I didn't know it was about my state of mind."
A Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy
Not just the Kinks' greatest single outside the 1960s, but one of their very best songs full stop.
With songs like 'You Really Got Me', the band had been a definite influence on the punk scene unfolding all around them, but this standout moment of 1978's Misfits was a tearjerking, soaring ballad.
It told the story of a band – presumably the Kinks themselves – as things all seem to be falling apart ("You say you want out, want to start anew / Throw in your hand, break up the band")
After the relative flop of 'Wonderboy', the Kinks got back up the charts (in the UK at least) with the introspective 'Days', which got to number 12 over here.
It's a beautiful, tender song about love and loss ("I bless the light that lights on you, believe me"), and it's definitely worth digging out the a capella version from the Sunny Afternoon stage musical.
Not written, as legend says, after Ray Davies dated Warhol superstar Candy Darling (the two only shared a friendly dinner).
"It was a real experience in a club," explained Ray. "I was asked to dance by somebody who was a fabulous looking woman.
"I said, 'No thank you'. And she went in a cab with my manager straight afterwards. It's based on a personal experience. But not every word."
For what it's worth, Dave claims he wrote the music for the song (which is credited to Ray alone), and it's become one of the band's most enduring hits.
Some radio stations were turned off by the twist of Lola's identity, while the BBC initially banned the song for a much more prosaic reason. That champagne tasted just like Coca-Cola... a brand name being endorsed on the Beeb was a big no-no.
Ray is said to have made a 6,000 mile round trip from LA to London and back again in the middle of a US tour to record the phrase "cherry cola" for the single version to keep Auntie happy. It went to number 2 in the UK and number 9 in the US.
This Time Tomorrow
Nestled on the Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. album was one of Ray Davies's most lovely melodies and contemplative lyrics ("This time tomorrow, where will we be? / On a spaceship somewhere sailing across any empty sea")
"I felt that I'd lost contact with my family," Ray explained.
"Because I'd been in a pop music bubble for five years, and I didn't know the people around me anymore.
"'This Time Tomorrow' was about transience, and an ephemeral world. Clouds, and where do we play tomorrow, and what am I doing as a person tomorrow?
"It's a floating song, and I was floating into a different era. Going with the flow for a while, until I work out where I want to be."
You Really Got Me
Where it really all began. Sure the Kinks had already released a cover of 'Long Tall Sally' and the self-penned 'You Still Want Me', but it was 'You Really Got Me' that gave them their first charting single, and also proved the archetype for their early hits.
Written on the piano, earlier versions were bluesier, but that was swapped out for the scuzzy power chords and Dave Davies riff that pre-empted punk by well over a decade.
"When I first heard it I said, 'S**t, it doesn't matter what you do with this, it's a number one song'," said producer Shel Talmy
"It could have been done in waltz time and it would have been a hit."
A hit it was, going in at number 7 in the US and all the way to number one in the UK.
A brother to The Beatles' moany 'Taxman' ("There's one for you, nineteen for me"), 'Sunny Afternoon' also referenced the high top rate of tax levied by Harold Wilson's Labour government of the time, though from a quirkier angle of drunken aristocrat (the taxman's taken all my dough / and left me in my stately home").
"At the time I wrote Sunny Afternoon I couldn't listen to anything," said Ray of the music hall-inspired song, which went all the way to number one in the UK and 14 in the US.
"I was only playing The Greatest Hits of Frank Sinatra and Dylan's 'Maggie's Farm' – I just liked its whole presence, I was playing the Bringing It All Back Home LP along with my Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller and Bach—it was a strange time.
"I thought they all helped one another, they went into the chromatic part that's in the back of the song."
All Day and All of the Night
The follow-up to 'You Really Got Me' didn't stray too far from the template: the same squalling guitar power chords, slightly-affected accent singing lyrics about how girls make you feel ("The only time I feel alright is by your side").
Despite stalling one place below at number two, It's every bit the equal of its predecessor and has endured as a Kinks klassic.
A few years later, The Doors 'Hello, I Love You' sounded awfully similar and while Ray Davies declined to sue, Ray wasn't too happy about it ("You can't say anything about the Doors. You're not allowed to"), and an off-the-record settlement was apparently reached.
We were spoiled for choice for all-time great singles putting this list together. Any number of other bands would gladly have taken any of these songs as their number one.
For The Kinks we've had to go with Something Else track and 1967 single 'Waterloo Sunset'.
"I didn't think to make it about Waterloo, initially, but I realised the place was so very significant in my life," said Ray.
"I was in St Thomas' Hospital when I was really ill and the nurses would wheel me out on the balcony to look at the river."
He added: "It's about the two characters – and the aspirations of my sisters' generation who grew up during the Second World War.
"It's about the world I wanted them to have. That, and then walking by the Thames with my first wife and all the dreams that we had."
It unbelievably failed to chart in the US (maybe the talk Waterloo Station was too parochial for them?) but got to number 2 in the UK and frequently pops up on "best song ever" lists wherever you read them.
It's been covered over the years by Cathy Dennis, David Bowie and The Jam.