See #250-226 here
225. Elliott Smith – “Waltz #2 (XO)” (1998)
from the album XO
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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:
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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!
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.