A little over a decade ago, I started really getting into popular music. And, for anyone who knows me, that means a big list soon followed. I started with a simple top 250, which has grown to a ranked list of 3000 I update annually. Yet, with all that, I have never sat down and written about this music. I’ve always wanted to explore why these songs click with me so much, to prove some sort of reason behind these numbers. A large part of this urge is that writing about music is rather difficult, but I can only get better through practice. Many of these songs have survived from that initial top 250, while others only reached these heights in my last annual update. Whatever the case, they are all beloved – I would not have bothered ranking 3000 songs if I did not love each and everyone, and these 250 just happen to be the best of the best.
#250. The The – “This is the Day” (1983)
from the album Soul Mining
“And all your friends and family
Think that you’re lucky
But the side of you they’ll never see
Is when you’re left alone with the memories
That hold your life together like glue”
Few moments in music can put me in a positive mood like the glistening intro to “This is the Day.” Yet buried beneath the candy-coated surface is something darker, in a way only synth-pop can provide. Listen too closely to the lyrics and you can imagine some maudlin indie rocker wanting to do a moody cover version. But contrast is key, and this is a masterclass in mixed emotions. This is an anthem for finally trying to make something of yourself, which first requires admitting earlier failings. But there’s no need to sonically fixate on those failings; that is all in the past, and this is the new you! I mean, as long as you can tell yourself that…
There’s always something compelling about a band daring to experiment with instrumentation, and “This is the Day” stands out as a definitive accordion song in popular music. Mixing that together with the synthesizer creates an unexpected serenity, further accentuated by Matt Johnson’s calming vocals. This results in a song perfect for either extreme, to bliss out while happy or find understanding and comfort while low. A cynic could say this is a song about denial; will this day really be any different? To me, the instrumentation suggests a stronger message – at any time, you can make this the day.
#249. Goldfrapp – “Lovely Head” (2000)
from the album Felt Mountain
“Why can’t this be killing you?”
Trip hop just might be the coolest genre on earth, and few showcase this better than Goldfrapp’s “Lovely Head.” After a Western-influenced whistling intro, James Bond-style verses are punctuated by an increasingly frantic synthesizer. Few songs feel so confrontational while maintaining such class. At the heart of this is a bitter sense of longing, with lyrics suggesting violent desire. All of this adds up to an atmosphere that can only be described as suffocating – this is a track I turn on whenever I want to feel overwhelmed. I can’t help but imagine some neo-noir cyberpunk spy film every time I listen – any song which hits me with such visceral and specific imagery is something special.
This is another song that succeeds by daring to try something different. In this case, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory were messing around with an old synthesizer. They connected her vocals where a guitar was supposed to go, resulting in that eerie sound. To then combine that with two very 60s styles results in something like few others, bridging the past to the future. Goldfrapp would tone down the intensity on their later hits, but this sound is so singular that I can’t blame them.
248. Simon and Garfunkel – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)
from the album Bridge Over Troubled Water
“If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind”
Sometimes, you just need gentle instrumentation so a vocalist can showcase the raw emotion of their voice. This is as tranquil and reassuring as music gets; the fact this was recorded by a duo in the process of falling apart is imperceptible. Without missing a step, the song transitions into an explosive finale, and Art Garfunkel reaches an intensity rarely seen in popular music. There’s no experimentation, no genres being pushed. This is one of those legendary songs that found something simple yet universal; a song millions would sing along with, even if they could never belt it out like Garfunkel.
This is another of those rare songs that can instantly lift my spirits. I never want to be sentimental, but that sort of power deserves to be celebrated. Music is the one medium I can consistently rely on for that feeling, to carry me out from the darkness. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is funeral music – the type of song you play to remind yourself things get better on the other side. This is not music as escapism but a form of honest coping acknowledging the difficulties in life. There is an endless sea of gentle piano music, but few reach these heights.
247. Cerrone – “Supernature” (1977)
from the album Supernature (Cerrone III)
“Maybe nature has a plan
To control the ways of man”
As a culture, we collectively decided disco was uncool, and I don’t know how that is possible when “Supernature” exists. In many ways, this feels like the prototype of what would become house music; ten minutes of somewhat intimidating synthesizer heaven. This is one of those tracks few know (at least today – it was actually a hit at the time), though the influence is readily apparent; Goldfrapp named their third album after it, while Todd Terje and Lindstrom practically owe their ‘space disco’ sound to its existence. This is disco with an unexpected edge; the cheesy lyrics are countered by some floor stopping breakdowns. If only the American popular consciousness latched onto this instead of the Bee Gees, we wouldn’t have had to wait until the 2000s for disco to be ‘rediscovered’ (under new names, of course).
“Supernature” is one of those legendary songs that carved its own niche in such a way that its impact could only be felt in retrospect. How did a disco song end up with such a dire sound? Cerrone creates something truly apocalyptic while keeping it ready for the dancefloor. Giorgio Moroder remarked that the synthesizer was the sound of the future, and Cerrone’s “Supernature” is a perfect example of an older song that sounds truly timeless.
246. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight” (2020)
from the album What’s Your Pleasure?
“And if a touch is just a touch, then a touch just ain’t enough
Tell me what it means, tell me you’re in love”
Jessie Ware spent much of the 2010s being the chillest pop singer around, and she kicked off 2020 with a disco throwback with a glacial energy – and I mean that in the most loving way possible. Though calling this disco does not feel adequate; Pitchfork described it as a ‘long-lost city pop classic,’ and I can’t find a better term than that. This is a dance song to sit around and vibe to, something so subtle you might not notice what it’s doing until the tenth listen. A pop song that glimmers and flourishes, happy to take its sweet time when similar artists are increasingly high energy. Everything builds toward an emotive and explosive ending, as Jessie Ware begs a lover to say something loving. There’s desperation, there’s lust, all being expertly subdued.
There’s something in Jessie Ware’s calm voice that suggests a sense of sophisticated confidence. This is a desperate love song, yes, but she never embarrasses herself. The way the vocals pile on top of each other – the way the backing vocals blend into the strings during the climax! Every time I listen, there’s a new detail that catches my attention. While keeping to an accessible pop sound, Jessie Ware has found a unique voice that I can only hope has far-reaching influence.
245. SOPHIE – “BIPP” (2013)
Single, later featured on compilation album Product
“I can make you feel better, if you let me”
In a way, SOPHIE’s music feels designed to immediately repulse, only to somehow draw you back when her songs inevitably get stuck in your head. This is manufactured music; crisp production, perfect beats, a voice modified until it is distinctly inhuman. On the surface, annoying; in time, an undeniable pop classic. SOPHIE was an artist who was easy to question – was she mocking modern pop music through exaggeration, or was this a legitimate attempt to push the genre to its breaking point? In all honesty, it feels like a little of both, which is what makes it so fun.
In the months since her untimely death, I’ve realized how strangely comforting SOPHIE’s music is – even when she started dropping bangers that made Nine Inch Nails sound like easy listening. The overly clean production somehow feels more authentic than most contemporary pop music – to be produced in this way suggests clear artistic intent. While almost too sugary to digest upon first release, the influence of “BIPP” has seeped its way across the industry – the success of later artists like Charli XCX and 100 Gecs with this sound led to a new subgenre being coined, hyperpop. SOPHIE was clearly trying to capture the sound of the future – with “BIPP,” she absolutely succeeded.
244. Gil Scott-Heron – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971)
from the album Pieces of a Man
“The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live”
Gil Scott-Heron’s call for active revolution turns fifty years old this year, though its message feels just as relevant today – unfortunately, that’s more a condemnation of society than any intentional attempt at timelessness. In fact, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” ties itself explicitly to a certain era, calling upon advertising slogans and critiquing specific cultural monoliths at the time. That bombardment of disparate ideas highlights his point – with so much of our lives being sugarcoated and forced down our throats, it’s easy to get complacent. To truly cause a revolution requires looking past the easy comforts and going out in the streets. Of course the revolution will be televised – what he’s saying is that it won’t succeed if too many people are only watching.
Gil Scott-Heron delivers this spoken word piece with a frenetic yet articulate ferocity. His music is commonly considered a precursor to rap, and pieces like this laid the foundation for the more political side of the genre. The backing instrumentation has a jazzy funk quality that really helps sell his delivery, a perfect showcase for fusing poetry with music. This is simply one of those rare cases where the prototype hits just as hard; Gil Scott-Heron jumped in with perfect delivery. An anthem for the oppressed that’s richly layered and rewards casual listening, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” brought protest music to a new level.
243. The Beatles – “Yesterday” (1965)
from the album Help!
“Oh, I believe in yesterday”
The Beatles have two very distinct eras, and no song better defines their earlier, more traditional sound than “Yesterday.” Which is funny, considering Paul McCartney is the only member to perform on the track. Like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” this is a simple song that picks up on a universal subject in a way that immediately resonates. There’s no specifics – even the narrator seems lost, not certain why his lover left but knowing he must have done something wrong. It’s a song begging to turn back time, to stop this unidentifiable slight from being said – only the lucky or truly lonely have avoided this feeling.
The sparseness of the instrumentation adds to the longing. Though this is actually quite dense; it’s easy to get lost in the acoustic guitar and McCartney’s voice, and the popularity of covering this specific song must come from this oversimplification; anyone can play that part. But it’s the stringed accompaniment that puts it on another level. The true magnificence of this group is the way they make even complex recordings sound simple. It’s even reached the point that there’s a movie named after this song that completely oversimplifies their work. But “Yesterday” is so packed with emotions, few can pull it off like McCartney.
242. The Walkmen – “The Rat” (2004)
from the album Bows + Arrows
“When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw
Now I go out alone, if I go out at all”
Few songs capture the raw desperation of a breakup like “The Rat.” One minute, you want nothing to do with someone, the next you’re begging for their attention. The early 2000s saw a brief explosion in post-punk influenced bands, and this was a key piece among the movement. The lyrics are simple and direct, the vocals like an injured animal lashing out at anyone who dares draw near. This is as energetic as rock music comes, every instrument a chaotic force. The drumming here is the standout. I’m not usually one for harder styles, but this hits the right level of aggression in just the right way – it’s angry yet achingly relatable.
Hamilton Leithauser has a vocal style like no one else, and everything about this song amplifies and reinforces his strengths. The bridge is the best part, the seething anger being pulled back, only for the full force of the song to slowly return. This is expertly-crafted chaos. Anger is a truly difficult emotion to capture in music, requiring one to balance a fine line between cheesiness and inauthenticity. In an era where a dozen nu metal bands came off as juvenile amateurs by merely associating anger and loudness, The Walkmen knew when to soften up at just the right time to highlight the surrounding intensity.
241. Hank Williams – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1949)
“Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me, he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry”
Oh, country music, what did they do to thee? An entire genre has been co-opted by ultra-patriots, to the point I can’t even recommend the classics without getting a certain look. It’s rarely a genre I turn to by choice, but Hank Williams hits me on another level. This is almost certainly a breakup song, but the lyrics rely on poignant metaphors over direct information. Whatever caused this pain was so shattering, the birds and even the sky weep with him. This is the raw emotion for which classic country is sometimes mocked, but Hank Williams sells it like no other.
Though country music had been around for decades by this point, Hank Williams’ tragically brief career feels like a key turning point, not just for country but the burgeoning rock scene. In its sound, I hear the American West, but there’s also something deeply personal. Hank Williams feels like the prototypical troubled rocker, which heightens the impact of his desperate crooning. The lack of specifics lend a universal element; this might just be the definitive country song for that reason. This is another classic that has been covered by dozens of artists, but no one can match Williams’ stellar delivery.
240. Wu-Tang Clan – “Protect Ya Neck” (1993)
from the album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
“The Wu is too slammin’ for these Cold Killin’ labels
Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doin’ artists in like Cain did Abel
Now they money’s getting’ stuck to the gum under the table”
Every rap group needs the crew song, a piece that gives each member a chance to introduce themselves and show their skills. Few of these tracks are as iconic as “Protect Ya Neck,” a rapid fire tour de force shuffling between eight disparate voices. Any time a track like this drops, it’s easy to want to pick out who steals the show – as if a couple members must be carrying the rest. Here, there’s no such luck. Wu-Tang Clan is such a talented group, half the members had successful solo careers. As such, a musical introduction has never felt so legendary from start to finish. This is multiple of hip hop’s finest firing on all cylinders from the beginning.
However, RZA does deserve credit for bringing the song together, both by suggesting the idea and also working as producer on the track. The backing production gives enough space for the rapping to shine while adding a sinister atmosphere. If hardcore hip hop is about intimidation, this is a master track of aggression. The way the verses flows into one another truly paints the Wu-Tang Clan as a cohesive unit. Each verse is packed with a dozen ideas, and the fact it all comes together is a mesmerizing feat.
239. Sigur Rós – “Svefn-g-englar” (1999)
from the album Ágætis byrjun
“Tju, tju, tju”
“Svefn-g-englar” is a song that creates a sense of beautiful desolation. Whenever I hear it, I can’t help but picture an abandoned society reclaimed by nature. Perhaps it is not so apocalyptic; the lyrics are about a child being born into the world. I can’t imagine much difference between those two feelings. In either case, one is being overwhelmed by loss and beauty. The world is a big place with such conflicting emotions, and “Svefn-g-englar” seeks to capture that in its totality. And in that manner, I find deep comfort in this sound.
Sigur Rós are generally classified as ‘post-rock,’ a lofty term that suggests a pretentious aspect which fails to capture what they’re really doing. To me, this is ambient music by way of rock instrumentation. This is a song that exists in dream space, crafting an atmosphere of sleepy warmth. Jónsi’s voice has an ethereal quality like few others. There are some songs I put on to put me in a good mood, but “Svefn-g-englar” does something harder to express. It’s not necessarily joyous or happy, but it lends an air of serenity to even my most dire moods. Plenty of lyrics promise everything will be alright, but “Svefn-g-englar” with its colossal sound makes that suggestion sonically tangible.
238. The Clash – “London Calling” (1979)
from the album London Calling
“A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river”
On the individual level, punk as a genre is never meant to last. The idea that your music represents a movement where anyone can pick up and play starts to fade after a few years of active experience. Few artists transitioned as well between punk and post-punk as The Clash, with “London Calling” acting as a signifier of changing times. Gone was the crude aggression of earlier singles like “White Riot,” replaced by a world-weary dread. This is a sound that suggests the coy playfulness of their earlier works is no longer enough; these issues are real and need to be directly addressed.
The intro perfectly sets the scene, an aggressive drumbeat supporting a stellar bassline and a guitar repetition that slowly grows like a siren before the first verse. Joe Strummer is at his vocal best on this track, giving out animalistic howls between verses. There’s an instrumental interlude after the second chorus that finds The Clash at their most fiery and paranoid, with a brief, scene-stealing guitar solo. The key to their evolving sound is that this still carries the punk aesthetic. An anger directed toward society at large and aggressive calls for action remain; they are simply more articulate through experience.
237. Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth” (1966)
non-album single, featured on later pressings of Buffalo Springfield
“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life, it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away”
The late-60s was a time of protests and hippies, and few songs better represent Vietnam era angst like “For What It’s Worth.” Alongside CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” this is the go-to song for movies reflecting on that period, and for good reason. This is a song designed to be a crowd pleaser, with hand claps and harmonizing during the chorus to show that it’s okay to sing along. Stephen Stills’ lead vocals have a soothing quality; the song almost risks dullness until the other voices explode around him, turning this into a bona fide anthem.
Neil Young’s harmonic guitar notes define “For What It’s Worth,” adding an introspective feel over the weary vocal style. That sense of introspection slowly fades, morphing into a sense of action; there’s a subtle shift throughout the song with the harmonics fading during the choruses and the final verse, the backing vocals becoming a continuous presence. Neil Young goes wild during the finale, suggesting a grand solo that would define his own career before the song suddenly ends. A ton of ideas are packed into this brief song. Like “Yesterday,” this is a song that makes the complex look simple; it’s easy to focus on the vocals during the chorus and miss how that shift in guitar style redefines the mood.
236. Fever Ray – “If I Had a Heart” (2008)
from the album Fever Ray
“If I had a heart I could love you
If I had a voice I would sing”
Few songs are as haunting as Fever Ray’s debut single as a solo artist, “If I Had a Heart.” A creeping synth chugs along and is quickly joined by an organ. Then Dreijer’s signature pitch-shifted vocals come in, deep and inhuman enough to suggest an otherworldly shamanic figure. It’s moody and haunting, like a piece of music pulled from a parallel reality. Its singularly striking quality was immediately apparent, being used in a dozen shows like Breaking Bad and even serving as the theme song for Vikings. It’s rare for a song to so viscerally suggest something has gone horribly wrong.
Yet the best moment occurs once Fever Ray joins in with their more natural voice. It shatters through the darkness, further painting this as a song of deathly yet human longing. The back half morphs into a duet between Fever Ray and their inner demon; what was once haunting becomes strangely beautiful. While they had long experimented with their voice while working with The Knife, this song’s thudding instrumentation centered the manipulation like never before. Such heavy vocal effects can sometimes create a sense of distance between an artist and their voice. Here, Fever Ray claims this other voice as their own, paving the way for a dozen other queer electronic artists to do the same over the following decade.
235. Björk – “Joga” (1997)
from the album Homogenic
“This state of emergency
How beautiful to be”
Björk is capable of creating incomparable sonic landscapes, and “Joga” is among her most unique. Hard, trip hop-styled beats are paired against classically-influenced strings. The song pulls more one way than the other at key moments, starting with the strings but at one point falling into an extended electronic breakdown. The result is something somber yet profound, an absolute flurry of emotions; the lyrics are just dense enough to not cast a clear light. “Joga” sounds like the backing track for an earth-shattering romance, the emotional climax that cannot be expressed through words alone.
Björk falls hard into the ‘art pop’ category, which is a term largely used to categorize what can otherwise not be categorized. Like Kate Bush before her, Björk made the music industry bow to her singular vision. Few pop artists dare to make something as dense as “Joga.” At the same time, this is unquestionably pop music, simply pushed to an extreme few would risk following. Tying everything together is Björk’s powerful vocals, the shining hope that redirects the tense instrumentation into a positive direction. I’m not certain what she means by the beauty of a state of emergency, but I have to believe every word with the conviction of this delivery.
234. Fleetwood Mac – “The Chain” (1977)
from the album Rumours
“And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again”
Rumours is the definitive soft rock album, but that does not mean it goes easy. “The Chain” is the most confrontational song on the world’s most celebrated breakup album. The only song written by the band as a whole, “The Chain” finds all three vocalists harmonizing words clearly aimed at other members. This is a group with nothing left to lose; why not provoke each other and turn it into art?
The intro is perfect, a slowly-plucked country tune, set apart from the rest of the song by a brief pause which leads straight into the vocals. This is a Wild West showdown of broken hearts, each singer trying their best to sound the most aggrieved. There’s a percussive kick underlining much of the song, simple yet evocative. The song then ends on an extended outro that edges into hard rock territory, merging perfectly as the vocals come back into the mix. “The Chain” is pop rock distilled into raw emotion, flowing between several ideas with perfect execution. The power of the harmonies here cannot be understated. Harmony typically means unity, and few bands have subverted this idea so effortlessly. This is a group trying their best to work together, “The Chain” intentionally showing the seams.
233. Stereolab – “Cybele’s Reverie” (1996)
from the album Emperor Tomato Ketchup
How do I even begin to describe “Cybele’s Reverie”? This is a track so ephemeral that it feels lighter than air, yet it simultaneously pulses along with a hypnotic rhythm. Sing-song vocals and rapid rock beats are paired with extended string notes. This is a track layered in contradictory elements. The whole piece works in a cycle, brief instrumental breaks giving a breather from the at times overwhelming harmonies. While difficult to describe how it works, the results are easier to express. This is a song that can be taken as ambient introspection or a rapid-fire rocker depending on the mood. This seems like an impossible pairing until you listen, and it clicks immediately.
A lot of this is the result of pinpoint production. The strings get heavier emphasis, allowing the slower section to overtake the energetic. Both sides are ever-present, yet the production tricks your ear into focusing on what would usually be a backing element. By flipping the script, Stereolab created a sound like few others. “Rapid-fire easy listening” sounds obnoxious if not impossible, yet “Cybele’s Reverie” pulls it off like the ultimate summer jam. Above all, this is a song that can always put a smile on my face.
232. The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (2010)
from the album High Violet
“I never thought about love when I thought about home”
The National are one of those bands that found one strong sound and built their entire careers around slight variations. Most bands would get tiring with such repetition, but The National managed to make five classic albums while perfecting this style. Perhaps the most definitive element is Matt Berninger’s baritone, imbued with just enough passion to overcome the borderline monotony. Few popular acts go this low with their vocals, and even less do so with such warmth. The lyrics are bewildering, including a trip to Ohio on a swarm of bees, but Berninger’s conviction sells the absurdity as something mundane.
Contrasting the gentle vocals is a pressing drumbeat. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” carries a consistently forward motion, little details finding their way into the loop to build a subtly complex sound. A key moment just past the halfway mark has the instrumentation briefly drop out, allowing Berninger’s voice to truly float like the swarm which carries him. The instruments then pick up right where they left off, exposing the great contrast between the two elements. Few artists are as distinctly Midwestern, and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” perfectly captures the pre-Trumpian sense of quiet resignation and feeling forgotten. Yet there is also the self-assured comfort of America’s heartland.
231. Prince – “When Doves Cry” (1984)
from the album Purple Rain
“Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like, when doves cry”
It strikes me as I re-listen that this is a genuine musical epic, from that iconic opening shred to the extended outro marked by animalistic shouts. This is a complex fusion of pop, rock, and funk, ditching a bass line entirely while making striking use of the keyboard and synthesizer. The fact this was a popular hit blows my mind; though I grew up in a world knowing this was a classic, a closer inspection reveals just how experimental Prince was being here. Without a bass line guiding the action, “When Doves Cry” glides unexpectedly between moments. The overall complexity is contrasted with momentary bursts of minimalism. The chorus really steals the show, the synthesizer hitting like an unexpectedly cold shower.
With such minimal instrumentation until the finale, Prince’s iconic voice is allowed to take center stage. His delivery is raw passion, sometimes diving into guttural yelps when words can’t possibly work. But every instrument present is given a spotlight, including a complex keyboard solo during the finale. What really surprises me is learning that Prince recorded this song himself, playing every instrument. Few artists pushed the boundaries of popular music like Prince, and the fact he made such an odd song into a number one hit really shows his impact.
230. New Order – “True Faith” (1987)
“I feel so extraordinary
Something’s got a hold on me
I get this feeling I’m in motion
A certain sense of liberty”
There’s something bouncy to the percussion on this song that instantly sends me soaring – as previously established, any synthpop song which does this is actually moody and introspective. It’s a shame that the few dances I’ve been to have been a flurry of modern pop. Even thirty years on, “True Faith” is the ideal club hit. It’s the embarrassing truth of my life that a lot of my favorites are dance songs I will almost certainly never hear in the proper setting unless I become a DJ and force it to happen. But I digress; “True Faith” is a dense song made accessible through its extraordinary beat.
Bernard Sumner might just be the weakest vocalist among my favorite bands, yet that does not stop the best New Order tracks from making proper use of his limited range. His sing-song, monotonous vocals operate as yet another instrument here, adding a serene atmosphere to what could have easily been an instrumental dance track. There is a lot going on here; it’s hard to pick out individual parts from all the chaos. This only proves the improbable success; something this messy shouldn’t come off as singular. “True Faith” is simply another track that always brings me joy.
229. The Cure – “Just Like Heaven” (1987)
from the album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
“Why won’t you ever know
That I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?”
Nothing will be funnier to me than the contrast between The Cure’s visual aesthetic and their popular hits. “Just Like Heaven” is among the prettiest tracks rock has given us, making key use of the piano and synthesizer. Few songs glisten like this opening, and they somehow sustain that bliss even as the lyrics take a tragic turn. While Robert Smith’s vocals shine, the song greatly emphasizes the instruments, with the verses interrupted by a guitar solo and then a piano solo. Both are strikingly sweet and dreamy. The one small detail that always grips me is the way the piano begins to underline Smith’s vocals at the end of each verse, which makes the piano solo all the more effective, like an extension of his emotions.
The contrast between image and sound is part of what makes this work. When someone dressed like Robert Smith comes up with a silly love song, you immediately believe he means it. This is sincerity without a hint of sentimentality or emotional manipulation. Despite being among the gothic rock crowd, Smith has an angelic voice. Though he expertly uses that voice to create anxious tension with tracks like “A Forest” or “Lovesong,” this straightforward presentation works wonders.
228. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke” (1976)
from the album Songs in the Key of Life
“But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove”
On a lyrical level, “Sir Duke” is a celebration of music itself. In the second verse, Wonder namedrops several of his influences, with the then recently deceased Duke Ellington giving the song its title. Several artists have made songs explicitly listing off their predecessors, but it hits harder coming from someone commonly viewed as a master himself. The lyrics outside the verses are repetitive, but with a purpose. Being a song inspired by jazz artists, Wonder wants to turn your attention to the instrumentation, to the feeling it inspires.
And this truly is a celebration across every layer. After a striking intro dominated by trumpets, the song settles into a catchy groove, with a recurring instrumental break shooting high into the stratosphere. Throughout, the song shows shades of jazz, funk, R&B, and soul. More than listing off names, Wonder wants you to hear their influence. Featured on an album trying to capture life itself, both good and bad, “Sir Duke” serves as the definitive burst of ecstasy. The inspiration for this song calls for a lament, but Stevie Wonder masterfully turns his attention to celebrating Ellington’s eternal legacy. Obviously, most musicians love music, but few have so perfectly translated that emotion into a song itself.
227. Vashti Bunyan – “Diamond Day” (1970)
from the album Just Another Diamond Day
“Just another field to plough
Just a grain of wheat
Just a sack of seed to sow
And the children eat”
Vashti Bunyan’s “Diamond Day” feels like a hit single from another, quieter dimension. This serene folk song was doomed in our own world; after the commercial failure of this record, Vashti disappeared for several decades, only returning to music once this album gained a cult following. This is the folkiest of folk music, less Bob Dylan and more a peasant song seemingly transposed from an earlier century. Yet Vashti feels simultaneously ahead of her time, considering the future success of Joanna Newsom. This is an artist daring to call upon niche elements in the name of a singular sound.
The song is soft and ephemeral, coming in at less than two minutes. Her voice feels small, suggesting this is not a woman in a recording studio but a farmer softly singing to herself while working the fields. The instrumentation is similarly airy, making stunning use of a recorder and strings. A ton of detail is packed into this tiny song, creating a sound rarely seen in popular music. The easiest and most obvious comparison is to Nick Drake due to the presence of Robert Kirby. But even then, “Diamond Day” exists on another plane of existence. Where Drake works in grand emotions, this song is an ode to a simple sense of contentment.
226. The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby” (1966)
from the album Revolver
“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”
While The Beatles were firmly established as the biggest band in the world by the time 1966 arrived, Revolver solidified their image as true musical revolutionaries. I cannot imagine the initial reaction as “Taxman” ended, only for that eager audience to be blasted with this aggressive harmony. If this is considered rock music, it is only because The Beatles were big enough to redraw the lines. No drums, no guitars, no bass, replaced with an ominous string arrangement. “Eleanor Rigby” finds The Beatles purely chasing after atmosphere, a moody piece about unending loneliness. This is a hallmark of the baroque pop movement’s early days. While The Beach Boys were making waves using classical instrumentation for their sunny sound, The Beatles made the shocking (yet effective) decision to fixate on dread.
The lyrics also take a notable shift. Whether happy or sad, earlier Beatles songs focused on love and loss, largely in universal terms. “Eleanor Rigby” is the story of two very specific people. Their loneliness may be relatable, but the detailed imagery paints a powerful picture. A face in a jar, darned socks, a funeral with no guests. The Beatles achieved a new level of maturity in this era, with “Eleanor Rigby” serving as a perfect showcase on every level.
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