My Top 250 Songs Part 3 (#200-176)

200. Kendrick Lamar – “i” (2014)
single, alternative version featured on the album To Pimp a Butterfly

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone good”

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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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.

My Top 250 Songs Part 2 (#225-201)

See #250-226 here

225. Elliott Smith – “Waltz #2 (XO)” (1998)
from the album XO

Key lyrics:
“I’m never gonna know you now
But I’m gonna love you anyhow”

Elliott Smith’s music tends to embody raw human emotions, largely at their lowest points. “Waltz #2” in particular paints such a singular image. A feuding couple at karaoke sing pointed breakup songs at one another while Smith appears to look on, reflecting on his own troubled life. The chorus is haunting yet familiar, the urge to love someone from a distance. Smith was a lyrical genius, and this is a masterwork; that opening verse kills me every time, particularly the line ‘she appears composed, so she is, I suppose.’ When not commenting on the current scene, Smith remarks upon his emotional state, absolutely failing to reassure the listener that he is doing okay. Like Joy Division, Elliott Smith’s music sometimes feels a little too raw considering his fate. This is authentic turmoil.

The music captures the internal conflict, a slow waltz with a depressive guitar jangle that rises to great heights when Smith forces a positive appearance like the subject of his first verse. By the end, Smith is no longer capable of wearing a happy face. The instruments derail around him as his distant longing overwhelms everything else. Though pretty simple stylistically, “Waltz #2” generates a flurry of emotion.

224. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – “Mustt Mustt” (1990)
from the album Mustt Mustt

In music, a truly mesmerizing voice can transcend any language barrier. I can’t even begin to guess what this song is about – any research into the meaning now would clearly be a distraction from the reasons for its presence. Its musical origins is in the Qawwali style, a form of devotional music among the Sufi people. In “Mustt Mustt,” this style dating back 700 years is fused with modern production techniques to create something with surprising force. Throughout, a catchy rhythm and chanting choir backs Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

This feels like a song designed purely to highlight the vocalist. While the backing music remains simple and calm, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan absolutely tears through the piece, growing more impassioned through each verse. Every moment in this song bends to his voice. He overwhelms the senses; as religious music, he makes you feel his absolute devotion. This project came about when Peter Gabriel brought producer Michael Brook together with Khan, and the purpose seems clear. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was one of the greatest vocalists who ever lived, and this track was designed to grant him international attention. One does not need to share his beliefs to recognize the raw talent on display.

223. Arcade Fire – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (2010)
from the album The Suburbs

Key lyrics:
“I need the darkness
Someone, please cut the lights”

Upon release, “Sprawl II” was far from a standard Arcade Fire song – this is one of those rare moments where an established band tries something new on a single track, and that experiment influences their sound from that moment on. And that’s for better or worse; their two albums since The Suburbs never quite capture the magic of this first attempt. “Sprawl II” is a perfect fusion of Arcade Fire’s larger than life sound and disco influences, a glistening synthpop jam that truly captures an endless sprawl.

This is one of the few Arcade Fire tracks that features Régine Chassagne on lead vocals, and to great effect. Though her gentle voice typically works better in contrast with Win Butler’s sheer passion, this track casts her against the music itself. This is an epic piece that threatens to drown her out, positioning her perfectly to sing about the suffocating need to escape. Going over the lyrics, it’s easy to imagine Win Butler creating a sense of despair. Instead, Chassagne adds a sense of hope, by the end singing with the power of someone who will force her way out of this horrid isolation. Beyond that, the instrumentation is a sheer delight; the moment around the 2:40 mark is a highlight, the synths winding down like all is about to be lost, only for the song to slowly recover before Chassagne comes roaring back.

222. Amy Winehouse – “Rehab” (2006)
from the album Back to Black

Key lyrics:
“It’s not just my pride
It’s just till these tears have dried”

Sometimes, it becomes difficult to fully appreciate the context of a breakthrough single in retrospect. Even before Winehouse’s untimely yet all too predictable death, “Rehab” was as dreary as pop hits come. This song acts as a desperate cry for help, but only through several layers of denial. It takes guts to acknowledge a drinking problem, even if Winehouse embraces every opportunity to explain away her behavior. She doesn’t have the time, she fears losing someone, she’s depressed, she only needs it until she’s feeling better. Amy Winehouse spills her entire being into this song.

The instrumentation serves to reinforce her denial. Winehouse uses the music to build a wall between herself and her words, adding bitter irony. But this is a pop hit because the song is just that catchy. Her soulful voice blends perfectly with an older style of R&B. At the same time, what was there to suggest a throwback R&B song by a no-name artist would become a major hit in the mid-2000s? Making the focus about addiction was a risk that paid off; there’s an air of authenticity here rarely heard on mainstream radio. Winehouse’s brutal honesty set the scene for several pop artists in the years that followed, from Adele to Lady Gaga to Lana Del Rey. But back in 2006, Amy Winehouse largely stood alone.

221. Charles Mingus – “Track C – Group Dancers” (1963)
from the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

“Track C” starts small, a piano that shuffles along as though trying to find itself. Then, right at the forty second mark, a cacophony of other instruments blasts between notes, and the track starts showing hints of its true colors. A minute later, the song falls into an abrasive groove before falling back onto that lone piano, eventually exploding into one of the most dizzyingly chaotic jazz pieces I know. The sections dive into disparate territory, one segment starting ostensibly Western before descending into a wall of noise which eventually returns to the refrain. In popular consciousness, jazz is the type of music you play at a lounge or a coffee shop, something light and inoffensive. Here, Mingus wields jazz like a sonic weapon.

Even without lyrics, “Track C” paints a vibrant picture. To me, this captures the anxiety of being stuck in traffic in a big city, horns blaring as you have nowhere to turn. Even after pulling oneself together, the underlying tension is inescapable. The music keeps pushing forward; this is an exhausting listen, a piece made more to be experienced than enjoyed. Plenty of artists attempt aggression as a defining trait, but Mingus pulls it off without losing his cool. “Track C,” impossibly, acts as chaos with pinpoint precision, fine-tuned to get under the skin.

220. Rage Against the Machine – “Killing in the Name” (1992)
from the album Rage Against the Machine

Key lyrics:
“Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses”

Part of my difficulty with harder forms of rock is a persistent sense of unearned anger. Rage Against the Machine are among the few that genuinely work for me, as their lyrics focus on topics deserving of such vitriolic disparagement. “Killing in the Name” has particularly aged well, an anti-police tirade with simple lyrics operating as perfect slogans. As anti-police sentiments grow more mainstream, this song solidifies itself as a timeless classic of the early 90s.

A deserving target is not enough alone; anger is a complex emotion, one too easily reduced to shouting. On “Killing in the Name,” Zack de la Rocha repeatedly reduces himself to quiet seething during the pre-chorus, the drums punctuating every line until the band builds itself into a frenzy. The outro works in a similar fashion, a quiet rage soon unleashed. The repetitive lyrics work wonders here, suggesting one fixating on their grievances until their only option is to lash out. On a sonic level, these quiet parts truly feel unique. In a medium all about sound, few artists experiment with its absence. Rage Against the Machine pulling it off while working in a metal subgenre is truly impressive. Of course, to fully work, the harder parts have to do some heavy lifting. The drums are forceful, but Tom Morello’s shredding is next level, including an unforgettable guitar solo. Rage Against the Machine earn their anger.

219. Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope” (2010)
from the album The ArchAndroid

Key lyrics:
“Some callin’ me a sinner
Some callin’ me a winner
I’m callin’ you to dinner
And you know exactly what I mean”

“Tightrope” is an energetic genre blender, featuring shades of funk, soul, and even hip hop thanks to a verse from Big Boi. But the dominant feature here is the funk, a genre that inexplicably lied dormant for several decades. Unlike disco, the disappearance does not appear to have any clear social explanation. In an odd turn, it simply seems like no major act tried carrying the torch. When one returns to a largely abandoned genre, the easiest term is to call it a throwback. Yet “Tightrope” shines because it never feels like a nostalgia piece. Instead, Monáe filled in the gap between Prince and the modern era, making a song that perfectly captures the spirit of the 2010s.

Monáe does this by recognizing the versatility of funk. The stellar bassline and killer percussion does not need to stretch much to accommodate the variety of vocal styles on display. “Tightrope” is loaded with ideas, yet it never loses a sense of unity. From beginning to end, this is among the most danceable songs I know. Monáe shines as a vocalist, jumping between spoken verses and impassioned soul singing for the chorus. Like the best funk songs from yesteryear, “Tightrope” is a blast of pure joy.

218. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes” (2007)
from the album Kala

Key lyrics:
“All I wanna do is *gunshots*
and a *gun cocking* *cash register*
and take your money”

There is something sinister about making such a catchy chorus and corrupting it in such a way to prevent anyone from singing along. Yet in doing so, M.I.A. shot into the spotlight. The strange thing here is that, for those who have listened to her other work, “Paper Planes” might actually find M.I.A. at her most restrained. Compared to the aggressively up-tempo “Bird Flu” and “Boyz,” the first two singles from the same album, “Paper Planes” can be described as downright mellow. Being that “Paper Planes” was only the fourth single, M.I.A. seemed to have accidentally stumbled into a sound that would resonate with a larger audience.

The mellow atmosphere masks some serious anger. M.I.A. positions herself as someone forging visas, a foreigner robbing people of their jobs, a secret agent here to corrupt your society. The rampant attacks on immigrants are reduced to absurdity when spoken aloud by one accused. Yet she has fun in playing that role, dishing out boasts about running the drug trade and comparing herself to a one-woman KGB. There are many ways to fight bigotry, but few expose the baselessness like playing along. “Paper Planes” is one of the strangest songs to achieve mass popularity, and it did so with a singular message.

217. Soft Cell – “Tainted Love” (1981)
from the album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

Key lyrics:
“Once I ran to you
Now I’ll run from you”

There’s something disarmingly simple about the appeal of “Tainted Love” that makes sense once you realize it’s a cover of an obscure Gloria Jones song from the 1960s. Lyrically, this is a very standard Motown number, one easily lost in the shuffle. Soft Cell elevate it through prominent synthesizers, transforming the song into one of the first synth-pop mega hits. Heartbroken love songs are a dime a dozen, but few vocalists are as convincing as Marc Almond. The way he shouts “Don’t touch me, please” at the beginning of the outro blows me away.

When I think synth-pop, my mind immediately jumps to frantic energy, but “Tainted Love” maintains a rather low tempo. The energy of the song is provided by forceful percussion. The song reaches a stylistic peak during the chorus, when the synthesizer draws out the notes, simulating an organ. Yet the beat never drops away, creating a jarring contrast. I have joked before that every upbeat New Wave song with subtly dark lyrics has an indie artist waiting to make a brooding cover, yet “Tainted Love” proves a perfect example of making that urge work. The original song was never a hit, but Soft Cell dug up a deeper meaning through a new sound.

216. Elliott Smith – “Between the Bars” (1997)
from the album Either/Or

Key lyrics:
“The potential you’ll be, that you’ll never see
The promises you’ll only make”

In a career full of despairing tracks, “Between the Bars” just might be Elliott Smith’s most haunting. He sings in a strained whisper, almost like a ghost. The instrumentation is equally ethereal, dominated by the gentle strumming of a guitar. On all levels, this is a song that suggests someone who has given up, made all the harder to consume in retrospect.

The lyrical point of view is so compelling. Instead of singing directly from the heart, the perspective is given from a bottle of alcohol. This is a siren song, a destructive force gently lulling you into comfort. This lends a more universal element than a straightforward approach. Not everyone has experienced addiction or depressive episodes. By painting his struggles as an outside entity, Smith articulates his situation as spending time with an enabling friend, someone incapable of realizing the harm they are doing. The quietness of the song suggests, if not a warm place, at least a safe one away from the world. This is a friend who will never leave you, one which must be pushed away with great force; but why would you when they offer such an easy escape? As someone who has been lucky enough to never deal with addiction, this gets the message across painfully well.

215. Tim Buckley – “Song to the Siren” (1970)
from the album Starsailor

important alternative version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b49YfsjXw5E

Key lyrics:
“Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you hare when I was fox?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks”

“Song to the Siren” is a song that has been covered by dozens of artists, and choosing the best version when even the original artist seemed indecisive is challenging. Popular consensus would go with the folkier version (or, more likely, the cover by This Mortal Coil which narrowly missed this project). But there’s something about the album version which hits me like nothing else. Sure, the folk version might be downright beautiful, but the Starsailor version finds an artist in the depths of experimentation. On this particular version, Buckley is playing more toward the Scott Walker crowd. The lyrics are versatile, but the folk version takes it too easy. On Starsailor, Buckley is absolutely wailing with grief.

In this recording, Buckley dares to push his vocals to the absolute limit. Some people might even find it comical, but I’ve always been enamored by artists who step outside pop traditions when it comes to vocal performance. The sparse instrumentation centers his vocals while adding a perfect eerie quality; the famous cover by This Mortal Coil captures a similar yet more traditionally beautiful atmosphere. In this form, “Song to the Siren” steps beyond a simple love song and truly embraces the nautical theme. With the backing music wailing like a siren, the lyrics take on a literal quality. One can picture a sailor bellowing this in ancient times.

214. The Beatles – “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)
from the album Revolver

Key lyrics:
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”

While Revolver truly kicks off with “Eleanor Rigby,” a song pulling unapologetically from the past, it ends at the opposite extreme. “Tomorrow Never Knows” finds The Beatles contemplating a bright and shining future, with instrumentation to match. After years of being the biggest band on the planet, The Beatles locked themselves in the studio and refused to come out. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a result of that isolation, a track purely meant to be recorded.

This track is most iconic for its reversed sound, resulting in a quality best described as psychedelic. John Lennon’s vocals are the only element to be grasped with a sense of forward time, but even that feels ready to fade into the ether. Time is collapsing in on itself, but in a serene manner. Tons of ideas pop up and then fade away, the lines of reality blurring together. This might not have worked without the drum beat holding everything together, itself hypnotic but grounded like a backbone. This is a band testing the limits of what they could get away with and stumbling upon a masterpiece. Whenever I think of a song to serve as the dividing line between the two major Beatles eras, this is an easy pick.

213. M83 – “Midnight City” (2011)
from the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Key lyrics:
“The city is my church”

Even the best synth-pop songs tend to be a tad dorky; it’s part of the charm. Yet “Midnight City,” despite its rather eccentric production, popped onto the scene like the most effortlessly cool song ever written. This is a song that never lets up, starting with that unforgettable opening (which is apparently a heavily distorted voice) through the reflective verses to the saxophone solo that closes it all out. The stellar sound brings up images of driving through a city at night, but not just any city. This is a city dotted with neon signs but otherwise cast in darkness, a place you can only visit in dreams.

This is another song defined by contrasts. That distorted wailing weaves its way throughout the song, sometimes taking center stage, sometimes blending in with the instruments. Its propulsive force lets “Midnight City” dip in and out of a faster pace at will. This one element creates a sound that is truly monolithic. Yet “Midnight City” simultaneously feels meditative, Gonzalez’s gentle voice casting a warm presence before bursting with energy at the end of the final verse as he declares the city his church. In 2011, it was a song that sounded like no other – synth-pop had been around for decades, but M83 discovered a new form.

212. Arcade Fire – “Rebellion (Lies)” (2004)
from the album Funeral

Key lyrics:
“People say that you’ll die
Faster than without water
But we know it’s just a lie
Scare your son, scare your daughter”

Funeral stands as one of the definitive albums of the 2000s, largely thanks to a texture that rises above and beyond typical indie rock. This is an album with strings and an accordion, creating a sound so lush that its classification as ‘rock’ feels more due to the lack of a better term than a proper description. But there is one genuine rocker tucked away near the end, a song that rises as a perfect anthem. “Rebellion (Lies)” begins relatively subdued, as expected from the rest of the album, only to repeatedly pick up the pace, reaching a high during the chorus. While Win Butler stays on the same level as the opening verse, the backing chanting of “lies, lies,” adds just the right amount of oomph. The song keeps rising, a perfect crescendo.

But like the rest of Funeral, “Rebellion (Lies)” happily steps outside traditional instrumentation. The song mellows out near the end, shifting its focus to a violin solo. Even when they’re rocking out, Arcade Fire show signs of introspection. With such a dense sound on their debut album, Arcade Fire were at risk of lacking an easy hook. But “Rebellion (Lies)” finds perfect balance between accessible and innovative.

211. Arcade Fire – “Wake Up” (2004)
from the album Funeral

Key lyrics:
“We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms
Turning every good thing to rust
I guess we’ll just have to adjust”

Deciding between “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up” as the better song off Funeral is an impossible task. These songs are two extremes of the same piece, eternally linked together in my mind. “Wake Up” is the big spiritual cleanser, soon chased by “Rebellion (Lies)” as the next step forward. But I give “Wake Up” the slightest edge, as it truly exists on a singular level. Funeral is all about crescendos, and this one hits the highest level. It carries this richly bittersweet feeling, capturing a sense of both loss and wonder – in many ways, the same feeling I get from the best Sigur Ros songs.

Yet the dominant feeling I get from “Wake Up” is hope. The lyrics carry a certain amount of angst, but only to acknowledge past failings as a way of moving on. And like “Rebellion (Lies),” the last minute shifts focus. It becomes something like gospel, but with a drumbeat forcing a higher energy. The final line is a cathartic shout, the instruments winding to a poignant stop seconds later. Everything about this song feels bigger than life. If “Rebellion (Lies)” served as a familiar invitation, “Wake Up” is the payoff that revealed Arcade Fire as a truly unique voice in music.

210. Johnny Cash – “I Walk the Line” (1956)
from the album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!

Key lyrics:
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine”

“I Walk the Line” is a love song with a subtle edge. This is a man declaring his devotion, but in a way of acknowledging his need to do so. Staying faithful takes effort, but she is worth that effort. Johnny Cash’s gravelly voice adds to this atmosphere. In most other hands, this could read as a typically light love song. Here, Cash comes off as a gruff figure – few love songs carry such a distinctly masculine energy. This is the soft side of a man otherwise busy shooting men in Reno and drinking too much. Or, less charitably but still as effective, “I Walk the Line” is a promise from a man destined to break it.

The tune itself is simple and effective, featuring a beat that plods along like a steam train. The guitar bounces between chords, occasionally shifting notes but never doing anything complex. Johnny Cash gently hums between verses, a purely functional choice on his part to help change keys that ends up adding a homegrown, country feel. All of this adds up to a definitive country recording, a song pretty much anyone could learn to play, but with just the right voice that no one can do it better.

209. Art Ensemble of Chicago – “Theme de Yoyo” (1970)
from the album Les Stances a Sophie

Jazz is a broad genre that cannot be pigeonholed into a single dominant mood, yet I am always drawn to the most chaotic pieces. This is not because I think of chaotic jazz as better than other forms of jazz; rather, jazz has a capacity for chaos that other popular genres tend to lack. Something about a horn section can be so forceful, and few songs showcase this like “Theme de Yoyo.” Compared to Charles Mingus’s “Track C,” “Theme de Yoyo” is much more approachable. The atmosphere here does not suggest destruction or stress, but rather a group of musicians having a whole lot of fun.

Part of what makes this work is that the truly chaotic sections act as a payoff. Any time it risks becoming too much, it cycles back to a quieter part. Excellent vocals are provided by Fontella Bass, tossing out several viscerally unpleasant descriptions that cast the chaotic moments as a reflexive wince. The bass adds a funky backbone, supporting the surprisingly accessible sound. This is a true ensemble piece, each instrument showing off yet coming together so perfectly. Though this might not be a song that can turn skeptics onto jazz, it reveals the limitless possibilities of the genre.

208. Missy Elliott – “Work It” (2002)
from the album Under Construction

Key lyrics:
“Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup”

Nothing bothers me more than the endless debates over the greatest rappers, chiefly because I rarely hear Missy Elliott namedropped. Putting her on that level should not be an uncommon opinion; her popularity during the late-90s and early 2000s was matched by her critical success. And there’s nothing about her music suggesting she was pandering for popularity; a track like “Work It” is as out of leftfield as it is effective. In fact, her best work is unapologetically weird, in a way we rarely got from female pop stars in that era – and now seems a defining trait for so many.

The production on Missy’s best tracks are next level. “Work It” has such an electrifying rhythm; while plenty of modern pop can be vaguely considered danceable, Missy Elliott was making genuine dance music. But never does she come off as a rapper coasting off strong production. Her rapping is as forceful and energetic as her beats. Lyrically, “Work It” is an aggressive ode to herself, a celebration of her own body. She blurs the line between sex appeal and outright vulgarity, a warning she might be too much to handle for the average man. Yet the entire experience adds up to something playful, Missy having fun with her own audacity.

207. Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976)
from the album Ramones

Key lyrics:
“Hey, ho, let’s go”

The Ramones were not the first punk band, but they certainly seem to be the first to establish the idea in the popular consciousness. Even the most important artists typically take a few years before others start taking inspiration from their work. Matching the rapid speed of their debut single, the Ramones influenced Sex Pistols and The Clash before the Ramones themselves had truly become established. While this bratty style now seems inseparable from punk rock, one only has to look at the term before these bands took over – their contemporaries were acts like Patti Smith and Television.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” is the definitive Ramones song almost by default. Quite a few artists get accused of making the same song over and over. For the Ramones, this is entirely true. The fourteen tracks on their debut album rarely stretch longer than two and a half minutes, all played at double speed to make up for their astonishingly simple structure. The strength here is that this one song idea is just that good. “Blitzkrieg Bop” has always had an edge, however, due to the opening chant. This song is perfect for the stadium, showing that even the simplest song by a group who can barely play their instruments can feel larger than life when played just the right way.

206. Violent Femmes – “Blister in the Sun” (1983)
from the album Violent Femmes

Key lyrics:
“I’m high as a kite, I just might
Stop to check you out”

Folk punk is one of those genres that sounds like a conceptual mismatch until you hear it. Punk becomes something else entirely while played on acoustic instruments. A quintessential punk song, one might not even stop to consider how unique “Blister in the Sun” is among the pack. Violent Femmes exist at the opposite extreme of the Ramones, finding a niche so singular that no one else has managed to capture the spirit to widespread success.

It’s hard to beat the opening riff of “Blister in the Sun.” The acoustic bass captures a playful energy all by itself, twice punctuated by the drums before the other instruments join in. Through most of the verses, the song captures a frenetic energy, but without the aggression typical of most punk acts. Key to the whole structure is a quiet section, where whispered vocals are left with a gentle drum patter and the riff. All three grow increasingly quiet as the section plays out, only to immediately explode to the normal volume without missing a beat. Even throughout the quiet section, the song never loses its propulsive energy. In an era where punk was turning increasingly hardcore, Violent Femmes veered in the opposite direction and stumbled across a truly timeless sound.

205. 808 State – “Pacific State” (1989)
from the album 90

“Pacific State” is a song with half a dozen variants, but I’m most familiar with “Pacific 202.” This is an electronic classic that defies easy classification. A frenetic electronic beat is paired with hypnotic animal noises and a more subdued yet dominant saxophone. 808 State perfectly shift our attention throughout, dropping out the saxophone here, focusing on the animal noises there. Those moments where all the pieces come together operate as a peaceful ambience while maintaining a danceable beat. This is a song that returns the energy you put into it.

With songs like this, the dominant thread is the sense of motion and imagery. No matter the section, this song captures my attention with a forward momentum. I picture myself cruising down a highway parallel to the ocean, seagulls flying overhead. As the waves lap against the beach, it lingers not as seafoam but television static. It’s the type of electronic soundscape people only made when they viewed the genre as a portal into an impossible future. This is a piece that wears its era on its sleeve, but that is not a bad thing. By so earnestly looking to the future, it now stands as an optimistic slice of the past.

204. LCD Soundsystem – “How Do You Sleep?” (2017)
from the album American Dream

Key lyrics:
“I must admit
I miss the laughing
But not so much you”

James Murphy has captured dozens of emotions over his four albums as LCD Soundsystem, but “How Do You Sleep?” stands out as his sole track tackling outright anger. Lyrics which would typically be deployed as playful jests are pure vitriol here as Murphy tears down an old friend who betrayed him on numerous levels. Murphy is happy to reference his predecessors, the title an obvious homage to the John Lennon song of the same name. But on a sonic level, this is far from Lennon, instead taking its influence from only the darkest Joy Division and New Order songs.

The song opens with something like an accelerated tribal drum pattern, the synthesizers softly in the distance. For the first three and a half minutes, James Murphy sings over this sparse sound, almost as if shouting from a distance. This is a slow burn, leading into a cathartic synthesizer burst right at that three and a half minute mark. The song again shifts near the five minute mark, adding a more traditional rock percussion arrangement. Like the best LCD Soundsystem songs before it, “How Do You Sleep?” spends its massive length slowly transforming itself. This track in particular stands out through the extremeness of its shift, going from a minimalist piece to quite possibly their most expansive sound.

203. Bruce Springsteen – “The River” (1980)
from the album The River

Key lyrics:
“Then I got Mary pregnant
And, man, that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat”

Bruce Springsteen started his career with albums that cast him as an eternal optimist – even when times got tough, the lyrics and instrumentation suggested someone fighting back. He kicked off the 80s with two albums that saw him giving in. Where “Born to Run” is the anthem for escaping one’s hometown, “The River” is the heart-wrenching story of those finding themselves trapped. Here, Springsteen takes more obvious inspiration from his folk influences, resulting in some of his strongest lyrics. This is a song dealing in specific imagery, establishing a central figure who realizes his earlier emotional escape ended up as his downfall.

“The River” starts with a stunning, wistful harmonica part before Springsteen begins singing. This first verse is sparse, finding Springsteen alone with the guitar, capturing the desolation of his subject matter. Even as the other instruments collectively drop in during the chorus, their downbeat sound heightens the loneliness as Springsteen sings with a desperate edge. Springsteen is central to the development of the Heartland rock movement, and “The River” established a melancholy side. In a way, “The River” fills in the negative space his earlier works merely acknowledged. With “The River,” Springsteen established himself as among the most mature and introspective voices in rock.

202. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
from the album Nevermind

Key lyrics:
“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us”

It’s impossible to deny the cultural significance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – with this track, Nirvana brought not just grunge but alternative rock as a whole to the mainstream. As someone born in the 90s, the song itself is almost too monolithic. For me, this is the default track to which all other songs must be compared – a song so key in the development of my musical knowledge that I struggle to appreciate it as its own thing. How does one judge something which feels as familiar as music itself?

The truth of the matter is that my listening habits trend toward new releases – most of these ‘favorite’ songs have become so entrenched in my being that I rarely revisit them. It’s not that I’ve become bored of their sound, but their imprints are strong enough that active listening adds little to my appreciation. But “Smells Like Teen Spirit” exists on an even higher level.

So, I could talk about how Cobain’s muttered vocals mask lyrics even harder to decipher. The muted guitar riff must have surely struck a chord with people. Kurt Cobain was a phenomenal vocalist, and the whole song is brimming with raw energy. There are a dozen little details about it I love, from Kathleen Hanna scrawling the future title on a wall to Cobain’s own dislike of the song causing several of the definitive elements. But all the elements that made this song so special are negated by my experience. From my perspective, this is the norm from which all else differentiates – an important title, but one that also hinders my enjoyment.

201. Courtney Barnett – “Avant Gardener” (2013)
from the album The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

Key lyrics:
“The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar
I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying”

The instrumentation of “Avant Gardener” is pretty simple. After a pounding drum intro, the guitar drones along somewhere between folk and psychedelic rock. A brief yet effective squealing guitar solo comes in around halfway through. Though the instrumentation is fine enough, this is a singer/songwriter track clearly relying on some stunning delivery to truly sell itself.

Luckily, Courtney Barnett kicked off her career with some truly phenomenal lyricism. She shirks off any idea of universal themes, instead penning a song about trying to garden and immediately having an asthma attack. Her sing-song delivery matches the droning of the guitars, suggesting a truly tiring and overwhelming experience. Her lyrics are clever in a dozen ways, painting such a finely detailed image that one must believe this all really happened. Yet she also relates this very singular moment to her life at large, a rare moment of inspiration shut down and forcing an immediate retreat to the safety of her mundane existence. Her wordplay is the truly mesmerizing element, managing to rhyme “emphysem-ing” with “kerosene and” while also tossing out words like pseudoephedrine like it’s nothing. The ramble of her voice adds to this delivery, simultaneously suggesting a dreamlike haze and absolute lucidity. This is the perfect example of a song stronger than the sum of its parts, with Barnett juggling several familiar sonic elements while crafting a whole that is uniquely her own.