200. Kendrick Lamar – “i” (2014)
single, alternative version featured on the album To Pimp a Butterfly
“I love myself”
Kendrick Lamar is among the most socially conscious artists working today. good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly especially paint powerful, sometimes overwhelming portraits of modern life as an African American. While many of his songs find him putting on a persona, “i,” as the title suggests, feels the most outwardly personal. It is also his most emotionally evocative. As Kendrick lists off all the forces trying to keep him down, the chorus bursts forth with a declaration of self-affirmation. No matter what the world throws his way, Kendrick will love himself.
Speaking of loving oneself is not a rare topic in hip hop – boast raps have been a part of the culture since the beginning. What makes “i” different is its explicit reference to depression. This is not bragging but an act of defiance against his own inner demons. The production adds to the conflicting, ultimately positive sense of celebration. A sample of The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” is perfectly retooled for this song. The bridge and third verse go off the deep end, Kendrick making perfect use of his love for vocal effects. His delivery during that final verse still blows me away, turning rapid-fire as he barrels over his own self-hatred, all building up to his final shout of “I love myself.”
199. Bruce Springsteen – “Thunder Road” (1975)
from the album Born to Run
“You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re alright”
Bruce Springsteen kicked off his breakthrough album with a song that so perfectly captures everything he represents, sonically and lyrically. Those opening notes are quintessential Springsteen, a pondering harmonica paired with a melancholy yet warm piano. This is signature heartland rock, a driving force perfect for speeding down the highway while searching for a place to belong. Springsteen captures a sense of ecstatic optimism that stops an inch short of sentimentality. While he is very much a rock star, this track exemplifies his distinct sound. Though the dominant instrument here is the piano, the frantic energy sets him apart from piano rockers like Elton John and Billy Joel.
At one point, Springsteen offers his hand. This is an introduction and an invitation – his first two albums are classics in their own right, but this is an artist knowing he has found his true voice. He might not be able to find this promised land, but the instrumentation shows he believes himself capable. His lyrics here are remarkably humble, a man certain of only his feelings and all too aware of how little he has to offer. This is the key balance to a Bruce Springsteen classic – tales of ordinary life rocketed into space by an expanding, emotive soundscape.
198. Nick Drake – “River Man” (1969)
from the album Five Leaves Left
“Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay”
Few artists of the 20th century feel as elusive as Nick Drake. After recording three albums to almost no commercial success, he died at age 26 of what may or may not have been suicide. Artists ending up in this position have a unique impact on popular culture – instead of setting the music scene on fire like The Beatles or Ramones, Nick Drake’s influence has slowly trickled throughout our culture. Though Drake operated firmly in the chamber folk scene for his first two albums, you can see shades of “River Man” in a diverse range of acts, from The Cure to Elliott Smith to Bon Iver.
On “River Man,” Drake sings with his typically fragile voice about the unbearable passing of seasons, at first backed largely by a guitar. Even in this pure folk section, there’s an uneasy feeling caused by the 5/4 time signature. Then we reach the chorus and the strings begin to rise, drowning out Drake’s voice until they briefly take center stage. It’s a swelling, mesmerizing, despairing moment. As Drake returns, the strings remain, an ominous force at times threatening to snuff him out. This is a lush and altogether haunting arrangement, a sleeper hit that feels like the prototypical art rock piece.
197. Lucy Dacus – “Night Shift” (2017)
from the album Historian
“I feel no need to forgive, but I might as well”
Some songs hit at the perfect moment. “Night Shift” came to my attention while in the midst of my divorce, and few breakup songs speak better to the messiness of the experience. Lucy Dacus hits so perfectly on a sense of not wanting anything to do with someone while simultaneously feeling incapable of moving beyond them. This particularly resonates due to its sense of an inescapable ex – my ex-spouse and I agreed to finish out our lease together, which lasted for nearly a year. The idea of ‘taking the night shift’ reminds me of heading straight from work to the houses of various friends just to have a space to regain my sense of self away from them.
Of course, I’m never the type to overvalue emotional resonance – “Night Shift” is a truly excellent song in its own right. What starts as the sparsest of indie rock slowly builds into a cathartic explosion. While Lucy Dacus showcases some excellent lyricism here, the key moment comes with the repetition of the final lines, her voice rising each time until she lets loose with a shout after a stunning guitar solo. This finale is one of the greatest moments of pure rock during the last decade. “Night Shift” is a masterful slow burn.
196. The Band – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969)
from the album The Band
“Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best”
Every once in a while, I’ll stumble upon a work of art that feels diametrically opposed to my own values, yet I can’t help but be drawn in. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a perfect example, a song lamenting the fall of the South after the Civil War without ever acknowledging why the war happened. Southern whites painting themselves as victims is tiring if not outright aggravating in the current era. But part of what makes this particular song work is the right amount of distance. The opening line positions this as a song from the perspective of a man from the era, creating the sense of a sonic period piece.
Despite its ordinary length, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” feels like a soaring epic. Levon Helm has such a perfect voice for the part, singing as if on the verge of tears. The chorus rises into a beautiful harmony, and brief pauses on either end really heighten the emotion. The drumming is such a key part of this experience, drumrolls accentuating the transitions and each line of the chorus. This is a song that transports you to another time, capable of placing you in the shoes of someone you might otherwise oppose. Such experiences expose the sometimes terrifying power of music to unify.
195. Buddy Holly – “Peggy Sue” (1957)
from the album Buddy Holly
Of all the rock acts of the 1950s, none have aged better to me than Buddy Holly. There is an energy to his music that feels several years ahead of its time – to think how the music industry might have looked if we didn’t lose him at age 22. “Peggy Sue” suggests a young man completely lost for words – only a couple lines in this song neglect to mention the name, while several repeat it again and again. This is an obsessive, single-minded track typically seen in certain electronic genres, but Holly makes it work with his iconic delivery. His vocal hiccups suggest a verbal tic; in this heightened state, can his mind process anything beyond her name?
The opening gets me every time, the drum rolling like a stampede, one element fading in and out. This song has a pulsing quality rarely seen in music of its time, and the accelerated tempo adds to the sense of lovelorn panic. Every element seems to be warring for attention – and then the guitar solo comes in, twice as loud as anything else. Despite Holly’s gentle voice, this is a surprisingly aggressive song. Few songs emphasize the ‘roll’ in rock and roll like “Peggy Sue.”
194. Bob Dylan – “Hurricane” (1975)
from the album Desire
“Put in a prison cell
But one time he could-a been
The champion of the world”
Bob Dylan had been making expansive folk epics for well around a decade at this point – the better parts of his late career are defined more by refinements than experimentation. “Hurricane” does, however, have one uncommon element for a Bob Dylan classic. The violin takes over as lead instrument here, the striking sound adding a melancholy edge to a song otherwise defined by fury. This is Dylan at his most impassioned. While plenty of Dylan songs are vitriolic, many are framed through cattiness – but these eight and a half minutes fly by in righteous anger.
Bob Dylan is rightfully considered one of if not the greatest lyricists ever, and this is on full display here. Made in response to an unjust trial, Dylan runs us through the details of the investigation and questions every step. He never stumbles with this ambitious task, weaving a full narrative around the music. As a protest song, it’s among the most successful – though Rubin Carter’s initial retrial did not work out, the attention brought by this song certainly impacted perception of the case. Decades later and well after the case was resolved, “Hurricane” sadly manages to hold up among Dylan’s most relevant songs. This is a damning portrait of racial injustice in America.
193. Lou Reed – “Perfect Day” (1972)
from the album Transformer
“You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
At this point in his career, Lou Reed had already made an ode to heroin with the aptly titled “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. But where “Heroin” is defiant and almost joyful, “Perfect Day” is a lament – not necessarily about addiction itself but those things which pushed him to using. This is a song from the perspective of someone who sees only one way out of his misery. On the surface, an oblivious listener might even mistake this for a love song – and they might actually be right. Lou Reed perfectly blurs the line between love and addiction, taking whatever he can to fill the void that is the heart of this song.
Whatever the subject matter, “Perfect Day” perfectly captures the sense of someone who reassures themselves while everyone else can see them falling apart. Even the narrator seems aware, remarking that he will reap what he sowed by the end. This is another song defined by contrast, melancholy music matched with positive imagery. But even that sad music is strangely beautiful, those gentle piano notes rising to match Reed’s forced optimism. Or maybe it’s not forced – perhaps this is a moment of genuine happiness for someone otherwise trapped in a depressive state. There are many ways to interpret this song, but they all hit just as hard.
192. The National – “Fake Empire” (2007)
from the album Boxer
“Turn the light out, say goodnight
No thinking for a little while”
There is something about “Fake Empire” I find strangely comforting. Matt Berninger’s voice is deeply soothing when used in the right way, and this might be The National’s warmest song. That’s not to say “Fake Empire” is light – in fact, quite the opposite. This is a song about finding comfort in a failing world, an idea reinforced by the peaceful music. The National are explicitly offering up this song as an escape, which in turn suggests the situation at hand is hopeless. We can’t make it through this, Berninger seems to suggest, but at least we can pretend.
But what truly impresses be about “Fake Empire” is the way it builds. The song begins with a piano in an unusual time signature, sparse instrumentation backing Berninger’s voice. After the second verse, the other instruments subtly join in, only for the drums to go rocketing off with the third verse. Suddenly, this quiet song has a propulsive force. Not happy to stop there, the song descends into a chaotic horn section. Through all these changes, “Fake Empire” never loses its core sound or warmth. While most songs by The National have a signature sound, these little nuances ensure nothing comes across as too similar. “Fake Empire” stands tall by maintaining an uncharacteristically soothing atmosphere for rock as a whole.
191. Nina Simone – “Feeling Good” (1965)
from the album I Put a Spell on You
“Oh, freedom is mine
And I know how I feel”
Though Nina Simone did not write “Feeling Good” herself, she certainly managed to claim it as her own. Simone is a vocal powerhouse, and this song is the perfect showcase. The lyrics are straightforward, a rather simple show tune – but she sings with such passion to fill every word with grander meaning. Even without any explicit lyrics, it is easy to take Simone’s performance as one standing for black liberation. In every part of the natural world, she finds joy and solidarity. There’s no need for specifics; “Feeling Good” is a celebration of the universal value of freedom.
The song structure is fittingly grandiose for a show tune. For the first forty seconds, Nina Simone sings a capella. The instruments drop in with great force, at first rivalling Simone for the spotlight. During the next verse, she is given more room to breathe, the instrumental focus shifting to a quieter piano. The instruments then return to their full force, but Simone pushes herself beyond them, exploding into a barrage of scatting before giving one last powerful shout of “I’m feeling good” as the song closes. Few singers have ever sounded this powerful and self-assured. “Feeling Good” is a blast of pure optimism.
190. Roy Orbison – “In Dreams” (1963)
from the album In Dreams
“A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night”
The early 1960s were an awkward era for rock music. With a plane crash taking out three of the rising stars, Chuck Berry being arrested for sex with a minor, and Elvis Presley being drafted and losing much of his drive, the late-50s left a gap quickly filled by pop and soul acts. Roy Orbison serves as the perfect transitional figure leading into the British Invasion, a traditional pop artist with enough of a rock tinge to fill the void. The lovelorn themes of songs like “In Dreams” were common at the time, but Roy Orbison belted it out like no other – even through the present day, few artists have dared to sing in his style.
For better or worse, popular music is partially tied to image. Roy Orbison stands out among the pack by blurring the lines – his masculine demeanor is contrasted by his emotionally vulnerable subject matter. “In Dreams” is particularly resonant, finding the singer incapable of moving on because his dreams keep circling back to a lost love. The intro stands out among his repertoire, giving room for Orbison’s voice to shine while backed by a few distant strums before the song hits its full stride. This is a lush production defined by an unforgettable voice.
189. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better” (2015)
from the album Carrie & Lowell
“When I was three, three, maybe four
She left us at that video store”
Few albums capture the grieving process like Carrie & Lowell, which finds Sufjan Stevens coping with the death of his estranged, schizophrenic mother. “Should Have Known Better” is the second track, serving as a calm before a messy emotional storm. This is the denial track, not of her death but the idea her death should have any power over him after her abandonment. A line about being left behind at a video store hits particularly hard – when this is among someone’s defining childhood memories, it’s easy to understand their emotional distance. But like any abandoned child, Sufjan wishes for those wounds to be healed. Carrie’s death put an end to those fantasies.
The song shifts gears halfway through, bringing in a keyboard and percussive patter as Stevens shifts his attention to the positives which remains in his life. The death of his mother is contrasted with the birth of a niece, someone who will hopefully be a bigger part of his life. Even as the album continues into the darkest places, “Should Have Known Better” serves as a beacon of hope, a reminder that better things exist on the other side of his grief. Alone, it is a disarmingly bittersweet reflection.
188. Caribou – “Can’t Do Without You” (2014)
from the album Our Love
“Can’t do without
Can’t do without
Can’t do without-”
House music has a habit of building entire tracks around short phrases repeated ad infinitum. “Can’t Do Without You” oscillates between two phrases, one shifted to a low pitch, the other in Caribou’s distinct falsetto. The deeper vocals drop the subject and object from “I can’t do without you,” a simple change which modifies the focus. With the shorter phrase and desperate vocals, Caribou is fixated on how loss would affect him personally – the full phrase shifts attention to the relationship. The song ends with Caribou breaking free from the repetition, finally finding the words to express himself.
In house music, getting the right phrase mainly serves an ambient purpose – the vocals might as well be just another instrument. Here, the warring delivery serves as a backbone. The opening is sparse, more attention on the vocals than the instrumentation. As Caribou nears the end of the first falsetto section, the instrumentation roars to the surface, only growing louder and more chaotic with each shift. What started simple and clean becomes a wall of noise as Caribou loses himself in the emotion. Everything settles down once Caribou breaks the repetitive cycle. With little more than a stock phrase, Caribou crafted a marvelous ode to the self-inflicted torment of imagining a loved one leaving.
187. The xx – “Crystalized” (2009)
from the album xx
“So don’t think that I’m pushing you away
When you’re the one that I’ve kept closest”
The xx’s self-titled debut at first appeared rather unassuming – they made minimalist pop with a moody post-punk edge. In an off year seemingly defined by Animal Collective’s bizarro turn to pop – an album which seemed to promise the next step in music before ultimately fizzling out as a singular moment – and Lady Gaga breaking through with a larger than life persona, the 2010s promised to be bigger and louder than any era which came before. At the time, The xx came off as one of many strong indie bands. A decade on, however, they appear to be trendsetters – with mainstream pop and even hip hop taking a minimalist, sometimes melancholy tone, The xx were unexpectedly ahead of their time.
“Crystalised” is the signature song from this release. The music has an aggressive force, with an ominous wail underlining the otherwise simple instrumentation. The highlight here, as with many xx songs, is the way Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft come into conflict as vocalists. This is a dueling love song, with one suggesting the other is moving too quickly. The song begins by giving both their own lines, coming together in harmony during the chorus. But it’s during the finale when things really take off – the two repeat their lines, but now layered on top of each other. Their words mix together; they are now too close, forming perfect disharmony. What sounds like a mess on paper is flawlessly executed.
186. Beck – “Where It’s At” (1996)
from the album Odelay
“I got two turntables and a microphone”
Nonsense lyrics have been a staple in alternative rock since the beginning, but Beck brings a strangely organic quality. Oddity is in his nature, and “Where It’s At” is a signature example of his mesmerizing wordplay. It’s not that his lyrics mean anything, but his seemingly random choices have perfect cadence. “Jigsaw jazz,” “jamboree handouts,” “hirsute, with your parachute fruits” – these are phrases signifying nothing, yet I always find myself singing along. Surrealism does not imply throwing random concepts in a blender, but finding a unique connection from one to the other. Many struggle with this concept, but Beck somehow suggests the coolest party in the world with “Where It’s At.”
The structure is suitably chaotic. A funky rhythm serves as the backbone, but little moments scatter it in a hundred different directions. The end of the first chorus inexplicably replaces Beck with a robot voice. This is followed by a short drum break, which a sample then comments upon. Little samples from a sex education video are sprinkled out, and there’s an extended bridge including a scarier robotic shout as it really kicks off. Beck throws in whatever stray elements he can think of, yet it all comes together as a cohesive whole.
185. Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence” (1990)
from the album Violator
“Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm”
Few love songs are as ominous as “Enjoy the Silence,” both lyrically and in the music itself. Supporting the theme, the words can be taken in several conflicting ways – is this a testament to quiet intimacy, or is there something bubbling under the narrator is giving every excuse not to say? It must be better not to say anything at all.
The music matches this conflict. Gloomy instrumentation is pushed with a propulsive force, resulting in something between a synth-pop club track and a gothic lament. The line between sad and serene is expertly blurred, much like lying in the arms of a lover who has been rather quiet lately.
Though dealing with emotionally heightened subject matter and carrying a depressing tune, “Enjoy the Silence” is surprisingly easy to digest. This is perfectly crafted synth-pop at its most mature, showing a song can convince you to dance while also contemplating your personal connections. There’s no sense of irony here like many synth-pop classics – Depeche Mode found a way to make the mood match the sound. There are tiny details that add to the complexity as the song continues, but the mix chooses not to draw our attention to their presence. Instead, Gahan’s powerful yet anxious vocals remain centered.
184. Pixies – “Debaser” (1989)
from the album Doolittle
“Got me a movie, ha ha ha ho!
Slicing up eyeballs, ha ha ha ho!”
Released in 1989, Pixies’ Doolittle helped shape rock during the decade that followed – Nirvana have cited it as a direct influence, and the dominoes fall from there. As the first song, “Debaser” acts as a manifesto of sorts. Black Francis kicks the album off by paying homage to one of his own influences, the short film Un chien andalou directed by Luis Buñuel. The violent, surrealist imagery of that silent film perfectly match the emotional roulette that is listening to a Pixies album. The perfect part about these lyrics is they really do sound like nonsense without context; there’s something deeper to be discovered beneath all this shouting.
“Debaser” feels like a chill surf rock track played at breakneck speeds. Black Francis and Kim Deal have their vocals perfectly juxtaposed, his aggression played against her straightforwardly pretty singing. The second verse is the same as the first, except the back half of each phrase is replaced with a forced laugh. “Debaser” might actually be among the more traditional tunes on Doolittle at this point, but that is only due to it so perfectly capturing the spirit of alternative rock. This laid a template for so many bands to sing about nothing with great force.
183. Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight” (1995)
from the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
“We’ll crucify the insincere tonight, tonight”
Few acts in the 90s alternative scene had a sound as expansive as the Smashing Pumpkins, and “Tonight, Tonight” just might be their biggest. Being the first lyrical piece on the epic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it is clear Billy Corgan wanted a singularly sweeping piece to set the scene. Including a 30-piece string section, this is a truly symphonic work. Though they have a tendency toward brooding (just look at that obnoxious album title), Smashing Pumpkins created a truly uplifting piece with “Tonight, Tonight,” a song which can easily carry the listener through the dark turns that follow. This is Billy Corgan reaching out a hand, welcoming the disillusioned to a musical journey.
There is something I find gripping about artists with unusual voices, and Corgan is undeniably among the strangest singers to achieve mainstream success. He inflects every word with a nasally quality, one that borders on grating at times. But as a songwriter, he knows how to write for his voice. It is hard to imagine “Tonight, Tonight” having the same effect if those lengthy notes didn’t carry his rough edge. But through all the strings and Corgan’s unique voice, the part that defines this song to me is Jimmy Chamberlin’s drumming. Chamberlin accomplishes the seemingly contradictory task of generating a tranquil forcefulness, perfectly bridging the lofty symphonic sound and the band’s alt rock roots.
182. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky” (2016)
from the album A Seat at the Table
“I traveled 70 states
Thought moving round make me feel better”
Imagine being Beyoncé’s little sister releasing an album only months after Lemonade shot the superstar to impossible new heights. Solange had no reason to be intimidated – A Seat at the Table matched her sister’s masterpiece in excellence. Instead of dabbling in pop like her sister, Solange explored a style of soul that had gone largely ignored for the better part of a decade. The lead single, “Cranes in the Sky,” was an instant soul classic, showing Solange to have a truly powerful voice.
“Cranes in the Sky” has a transcendental quality. The lyrics show someone struggling with their personal life, listing off all the ways she has attempted to escape her negative thoughts. This is a slow song, giving every drum beat impact. Extended string notes suggest a meditative quality – though she focuses on the difficult moments, it is clear Solange is trying her best to move on. All of this builds toward the refrain, where Solange repeats the word ‘away’ over and over, growing louder with each repetition, more and more voices coming in to give her support. Though the lyrical content never reaches a point of relief, the song as a whole captures a feeling of forward-thinking hope.
181. The Specials – “Ghost Town” (1981)
“Too much fighting on the dance floor”
Of the many terms I associate with ska, ‘ominous’ would not be one. Yet “Ghost Town” thrives in that apocalyptic tone, an all-time classic within its genre due to its blunt reimagining of what ska could be. All the elements are there, but they have been reconstituted to paint a picture of urban distress. There are plenty of works that try to deconstruct a genre, but that is not what is happening here. This is earnestly ska (of the two-tone variety) in a distinct form; like “Blister in the Sun,” it succeeds by going somewhere so unexpected that anyone attempting the same unfortunately come across as imitators. “Ghost Town” could have signaled the dawning of a new genre entirely but instead stands as a singular hit.
The spine-chilling opening is an all-time classic. The instrumentation is familiar, but simply being played at a slower pace creates such a suffocating atmosphere compared to ska’s typically (perhaps gratingly) cheerful mood. But it’s not all despair – an important bridge briefly switches up the pace, reflecting on better times. This is a band that wants to celebrate, finding themselves in a world with no reason for joy. The verses cycle through several vocalists instead of having a lead, expertly suggesting the societal level of the band’s grievances.
180. Todd Terje – “Inspector Norse” (2012)
from the EP It’s the Arps, later featured on the album It’s Album Time
To me, “Inspector Norse” is pure ecstasy. Released near the beginning of my college days, I can’t listen without thinking of walking through campus while blasting this from my iPod Nano. Every time it came on shuffle, I wanted to dance like an idiot down the sidewalk – it’s the perfect tune for getting from one place to another. Todd Terje created disco for a new era, capturing a sense of motion like few others. Many songs create a feeling of forward momentum, but “Inspector Norse” is different in a way that is hard to define in words.
From the beginning, there’s a bounciness to its rhythm few songs try to capture. Little synth sounds whiz by, unpredictable in their pattern but amplifying the shockingly expressive energy of this instrumental piece. A little over a minute in, a comparatively mellow synth line joins in, itself bouncy but with its own distinct pattern. Bounce is played against bounce, the initial beat serving as a familiar backbone while the other elements shoot for the sky. This is the best kind of electronic music, perfect for the dancefloor while pulling out enough stops to remain a thoroughly engaging listening experience. Whatever mood I find myself in, “Inspector Norse” gets me on my feet.
179. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Into My Arms” (1997)
from the album The Boatman’s Call
“And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you, I wonder if that’s true”
“Into My Arms” is far from a standard Nick Cave song. Better known for the gothic rock of his early era or his more experimental works during the 21st century, this song is disarmingly simple. Here, Nick Cave uses nothing but a piano and electric bass for a touching love ballad. Much like The Cure and their pop ditties, these deep emotions have an extra air of authenticity when coming from someone who usually sings from a darker place. The key element here is how specific Cave gets in the descriptions of his love.
With the sparse instrumentation, the focus is entirely on Cave’s lyrics, where he has always excelled but hits a high note here. Nick Cave frames his love in religious terms. While this is a common lens for many love songs, the distinction here is that Nick Cave sings from an atheistic perspective. While starting every verse by noting his lack of belief, he then meets his religious lover halfway – he might not believe, but he will speak in the terms she finds soothing. While so much media portrays atheists with condescending attitudes toward religious folk, Cave expresses something genuine and humanist about that divide. He might not believe, but he recognizes the spiritual significance of these ideas and uses a unifying element to express his love.
178. Neil Young – “Heart of Gold” (1972)
from the album Harvest
“You keep me searchin’ and I’m growing old”
A large part of my musical journey has been defined by a desire to understand the perspective of others. Whenever I come across a classic artist who fails to click with me, I have a tendency to give them more attention than those I immediately enjoy. This may seem counterintuitive, but I am as drawn to music for its cultural impact as I am for my own enjoyment. Though I’m still puzzled by certain acts (the whole hair metal era feels like a practical joke), I have discovered several of my favorites through this strange determination – Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Brian Eno, just to name a few. Few overcame a larger barrier than Neil Young.
The obvious difficulty is his voice. There are plenty of major artists with questionable vocal abilities, but Neil Young’s higher pitch felt particularly grating when I first listened. Many of his more approachable songs largely hide his voice away, sprawling guitar epics with little need for words. Hearing “Heart of Gold” numerous times was the turning point. Young might not have a pretty voice, but he knows how to write a song to benefit from his apparent weakness. On “Heart of Gold,” he sounds as vulnerable as a man can be. Young is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and once you adjust to his unique style, his truly masterful songwriting makes itself apparent. The harmonica is among the best this side of Bob Dylan, while his impassioned vocals are joined by a chorus of others for a cathartic payoff. Not in spite of but because of Young’s rough vocals, “Heart of Gold” is among the most moving songs I know.
177. Vampire Weekend – “Hannah Hunt” (2013)
From the album Modern Vampires of the City
“Though we live on the US dollar
You and me, we got our own sense of time”
From the beginning, Ezra Koenig was a brilliant lyricist. Vampire Weekend’s first two albums paired this with a twee sound that balanced a strange line between prime hipsterdom and mainstream appeal. Their self-titled debut is itself a modern classic, but a strong yet familiar follow-up in Contra suggested they might have a limited range. Developing a mature sound as complex as Koenig’s lyrics, Vampire Weekend proved themselves all-time greats with Modern Vampires of the City. Few songs showcase this as well as “Hannah Hunt,” a gentle song that explodes into a passionate plea during its finale.
The first verse has wonderful imagery, Koenig quick on the wordplay. The narrator appears baffled by a claim of moving plants, only to cite two stationary plants with moving names as proof. Koenig continues to describe a couple travelling all across the United States, literal imagery implying growing conflict as the girl grows frustrated with their travels. The song closes with two repetitions of the chorus, the first dropping out much of the instrumentation. Shortly after, the song spontaneously bursts with energy, Koenig shouting his anger. The general downtempo sound through much of the song forms a perfect contrast for its cathartic release. Few songs capture the dawning horror of a relationship ending like “Hannah Hunt.”
176. Lorde – “Royals” (2013)
from the album Pure Heroine
“I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh”
Growing up, I was never the biggest fan of pop music. A genre designed to be as catchy as possible, I found much of it to be literally headache-inducing. It takes true talent to craft a pop song that stops just short of being annoying. At age sixteen, Lorde seemed to be just as annoyed when she penned “Royals.” Both lyrically and sonically, this was an assault on mainstream pop that nevertheless achieved unlikely success. Several teen pop stars have shot into the spotlight over the years, but few felt so convincingly dismissive of her contemporaries – Lorde stepped onto the scene to show us how to do pop music right.
While The xx set the stage for a minimalist movement in the indie scene four years earlier, Lorde proved mainstream viability with “Royals.” The instrumentation is sparse, enough to be catchy in the moment but never linger like so many unwanted ear worms. Her vocals are strong but avoid extravagance. Like Amy Winehouse before her, Lorde comes across with an air of authenticity in a medium largely defined by excessive glamour. Few songs have had such an immediate impact – the best pop hits became a lot mellower as the decade continued. I listen to quite a bit more pop these days, and not due to a personal change of heart. Pop changed, and “Royals” is the clearest turning point.