My Top 250 Songs Part 6 (#125-101)

125. Dead Kennedys – “Holiday in Cambodia” (1980)
from the album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables

Key lyrics:
“Don’t forget to pack a wife”

Ramones achieved their signature sound by playing rather ordinary songs twice as fast. The hardcore punk movement then came along saying that was not fast enough. There is something raw, almost animalistic that makes hardcore punk hit different than other hard genres. Where the various forms of metal typically feature complex instrumentation, most of the hardcore punk acts stick to the simple structure of punk. Everything is in the presentation.

Jello Biafra’s vocals make “Holiday in Cambodia” unlike anything else. He gives off an air of genuine insanity in his gleeful sneers. Where many hardcore performers rely on anger, Biafra makes it clear his target deserves nothing more than biting ridicule. This delivery has an unlikely effect – though both the subject matter and music are aggressive, Biafra seems to be inviting us to laugh along.

The guitar toys with surf rock, turning out one of the sickest riffs in punk. This adds to Biafra’s bitterly cynical sarcasm – the beaches of Cambodia are totally tubular, dudes. The song veers off into several instrumental breaks, all more sinister than the last. The finale descends into Biafra muttering Pol Pot over and over, reducing the dictator to a decontextualized rhythmic element. “Holiday in Cambodia” is as biting as it is fun.

124. Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti – “Falling” (1989)
from the albums Floating Into the Night and Soundtrack from Twin Peaks

Key lyrics:
“Don’t let yourself be hurt this time”

An instrumental variant of this song would be used as the iconic theme for Twin Peaks. Being that Twin Peaks is my favorite television show, I may be a tad biased – but Badalamenti’s score is such a big part of this love. Further, while I once begrudged acknowledging other media influencing my love for certain songs, I now recognize this denies music one of its major functions. More than any other medium, music has been used to accompany other works of art. The act of helping another work achieve greatness can itself be a sign of greatness. This extends beyond something as explicit as a television theme – the most iconic songs become symbols in themselves. I cannot dissociate “These Days” from Margot Tenenbaum stepping off the bus or “The End” from Apocalypse Now – nor would I want to. It’s not that Twin Peaks elevates my love for “Falling,” but that their greatness is interlinked.

Julee Cruise’s vocals transform the atmospheric grandeur into something ethereal and dreamy. The contrast between her gentle vocals and the signature bass simulate the spirit of David Lynch’s work. Julee Cruise plays an innocent girl on the verge of being crushed by the weight of the world. Whenever the instruments threaten to drown her out entirely, she resists. The song rises with her voice, the music bending to her will. This is a ray of hope in a grander body that would constantly deny its audience and characters such levity.

123. A Tribe Called Quest – “Scenario” (1991)
from the album The Low End Theory

Key lyrics:
“Rawr, rawr, like a dungeon dragon”

“Scenario” is far from a typical Tribe Called Quest production. Their other hits tend to take a lighter atmosphere, more in line with De La Soul than Wu-Tang Clan. “Scenario” is a one-off exploration of hardcore elements, but the Tribe give a convincing performance. Their sample is as simple as it is confrontational. This is the ultimate posse cut, cycling through the members and several guests from Leaders of the New School.  The minimalist production spotlights the delivery – there are moments where lines seem to exist purely to create an impossible flow. Short bursts of backing shouts add to the experience. Plenty of rap tracks emphasize vocals, but “Scenario” focuses more on the cadence than the lyrics.

Already exceptional during its first half, “Scenario” becomes an all-time classic by introducing the world at large to Busta Rhymes. The whole song seems built to encapsulate his specific strengths. His persona is aggressive yet absurd, a perfect match for this nontraditional hardcore cut. Despite its relative hard edge, “Scenario” fits perfectly alongside the other Tribe Called Quest hits through its playfulness. This track only toys with intimidation, cutting it down with bizarre exclamations. This is simply a group of young men having a whole lot of fun, resulting in an explosive party jam.

122. Kraftwerk – “Trans-Europe Express” (1977)
from the album Trans-Europe Express

Key lyrics:
“From station to station, back to Dusseldorf City
Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”

“Trans-Europe Express” chugs along just like the international railway which inspired its creation. The robotic Kraftwerk had their eye on transportation from the beginning – their first two albums feature traffic cones on the cover, while their breakthrough hit was a 23 minute epic about the Autobahn. The full album of Trans-Europe Express feels like a grand tour of the European countryside. But where album opener “Europe Endless” is pretty enough that it could have been used to advertise the now-defunct TEE, “Trans-Europe Express” kicks off side two with something sinister. While that first track simulates a peaceful trip, “Trans-Europe Express” mimics the harsh sounds of the train itself.

The vocals add to the industrial soundscape. At first, they are modified with a metallic layer. This dense production suggests a discordant harmony of metal scraping against metal. Even when the band sings without modification, there is an insistent monotony to their performance. This is cold and calculating – in other words, efficient. Through all the tense atmosphere, there is no suggestion Kraftwerk views this machinery with disdain. Grand, rising synthesizers create a monolithic entity. Viewing the future of both transportation and music as gods from the machine, Kraftwerk cast them both as awe-inspiring, in the most classical sense of both fear and wonder.

121. Jay-Z – “99 Problems” (2003)
from the album The Black Album

Key lyrics:
“If you don’t like my lyrics, you can press fast forward”

Jay-Z’s greatest hit acts as a deconstruction of his success. Built around a chorus ripped straight from Ice-T’s own “99 Problems,” Jay-Z takes a literal interpretation. Instead of focusing on the women, his gaze is focused exclusively on the problems. The chorus thus acts as needless button-pushing, of which he tackles in the first verse. Do any of his critics understand the context of his success? Misogyny may be a common problem in hip hop, but the critics ignore why those songs exist. These are celebratory songs from a group which has been given little reason to do so. Those more upbeat if problematic tracks act as a necessary catharsis. He then bitterly descends into the real problems these critics demand.

The production is an absolute masterwork. Few songs manage such inseparable synthesis between voice and instrumentation. The beat stutters and stops, helping to emphasize every single word. A few guitar chords strike at the end of every other line, continually pushing us into the next section. Through this aggressive, minimalistic beat, Jay-Z paints a grimy picture of life as a black man in America. By doing so, he actually flips the chorus on its head – a good woman might just be his one relief.

120. SOPHIE – “Immaterial” (2018)
from the album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

Key lyrics:
“I could be anything I want
Anyhow, anywhere, any place, anyone that I want”

On her first studio album, SOPHIE largely shed the hyperpop aesthetic of her earlier singles to create some truly aggressive electronic bangers. “Immaterial” feels like the one leftover from those earlier creations, and its context within such a heavy album is what finally sold me on the hyperpop sound. SOPHIE plays with the concept of gender throughout the album, with “Immaterial” as conceptually relieving as it is sonically. Where “Faceshopping” simulates a breakdown over the need to present oneself a certain way, “Immaterial” is a firm embracement of the ethereal. With this track, SOPHIE affirms that we have the power to define ourselves. The seeming frivolity of her earlier work is shattered by this clear statement – she made such unusual music because she could.

As someone with a firm understanding of their gender identity but difficulty with expression, I struggle to put into words how much this song means to me. There are so many works about transitioning and the like, but “Immaterial” embraces the nebulous. As someone whose identity is defined by a lack of clear definition, this song gave a hitherto unknown sense of validation. The bridge at the center is a blast of gender euphoria – “I don’t even have to explain, just leave me alone now.” Like any great bridge, the return to form on the other side hits with joyous new meaning. Never has a song made me feel so at peace with myself.

119. The Beatles – “A Day in the Life” (1967)
from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Key lyrics:
“I’d love to turn you on”

Despite the many iconic songs The Beatles recorded, “A Day in the Life” still feels like an easy choice for their all-time best. It feels like a culmination of so many of their ideas. Introspective verses by Lennon are split by a peppy slice of mundanity by McCartney. These sections are bridged by a rising cacophony, culminating in one of the grandest finales in popular music history and punctuated by a shocking chord that stretches for another forty seconds. More than their popular success but also due to it, the reason The Beatles remain such an important band is their ability to make a wide audience embrace the avant-garde. They rarely shoved it down our throats. Rather, their best songs contained only snippets of their experimental proclivities. These bite-sized chunks made even the harshest sounds accessible.

The orchestral segments of “A Day in the Life” could have been genuinely terrifying. McCartney’s stray verse sometimes seems out of place, but the sheer juxtaposition transforms it into some much-needed relief. Coming down from the second orchestral segment, Lennon’s final verse is lent extra weight. The lines alone mean nothing, but the grandiose presentation could bring a man to tears. By capturing the sometimes overwhelming feeling of everyday life, The Beatles made a stellar experiment that spoke to all their disparate listeners.

118. Nat King Cole – “Nature Boy” (1947)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return”

Few songs haunt me like this short tune from the late 1940s. Lyrically, this is ostensibly a wondrous tale. A chance encounter with a magical boy opens the narrator’s mind up to the beauty of love. Without the instrumentation, “Nature Boy” could have been schmaltzy – there are an endless number of songs about the power of love. A magical boy delivering the message changes little. A lush string arrangement makes it something revelatory. And instead of meeting these words with wonder alone, Nat King Cole responds with fear. “Nature Boy” captures the overwhelming sensation of realizing one’s perspective has changed – for better or worse, he will never be the same person again.

The flute lends a magical element throughout the opening. Key to the arrangement is an instrumental break as the narrator ponders the final statement. The wondrous flute disappears, replaced by a less gentle piano. The strings operate differently when played against this instrument. The lyrics suggest a fae encounter, and this break feels like the aftermath. The narrator has been abandoned in the woods, left to find his way out while puzzling over the experience. “Nature Boy” is a reminder that something of wondrous beauty can be unexpectedly terrifying in its power.

117. R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion” (1991)
from the album Out of Time

Key lyrics:
“I think I thought I saw you try”

Changing up traditional rock instrumentation can go a long way. With “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. built a song around the mandolin and acoustic guitar, creating a soft yet striking sound in an era where rock would soon be defined by a messy edge. Michael Stipe shows the gentlest arrangement can contain a passionate fury. This is a man distantly in love, too afraid to speak up, stewing in his dissatisfaction. He looks for any sign of mutual interest, but also knows any hint is his own delusion. With a harder sound, this could have been a stalker song. Instead, R.E.M. keeps it light and therefore relatable – who hasn’t longed for someone they know to be unattainable?

A unique instrument can help a song elevate a standard element. The mandolin is not doing anything particularly special in its own terms, but it helps sustain an unusual rolling motion. This helps place “Losing My Religion” in a constant state of familiar action, even as the other elements shift around. What would usually be a backing element is placed in the spotlight – the trick R.E.M. pulls off here is using a distinct sound to redirect our attention. The result is something as introspective as it is fiery, never once losing its cool.

116. OutKast – “B.O.B.” (2000)
from the album Stankonia

Key lyrics:
“The fence is too high to jump in jail
Too low to dig, I might just touch hell – hot!”

There are a handful of songs I have noted as ageless, largely due to their singular design. Songs by artists sitting just outside the mainstream, with no one taking them as influences until decades later.  “B.O.B.” is inimitable from a more enviable position, a song by a hit band pulling off something only they could do. Few artists can match the rapid delivery, and even less while maintaining their joyous energy. Their follow-up album helped fuel endless debates about who is the stronger OutKast member, but “B.O.B.” shows they work better together. Their distinct styles make the two extended verses engaging. Even 20 years later, every second of this song sounds so fresh.

Everything about this track is absolute chaos. The lyrics overstimulate, a cycle of mad references like a paranoid “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (but actually effective). Though the mere presence of rapping has a tendency to overwrite every other genre, this really is a stylistic smorgasbord. Hard dance beats propel this track, while a stellar guitar solo jettisons us out from the second verse. The finale is a celebration of this achievement, a choir chanting ‘power music electric revival.’ “B.O.B.” takes the typically dreaded list song and puts it on another level, a sonic assault of everything at the same time.

115. New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle” (1986)
from the album Brotherhood

Key lyrics:
“Every time I see you falling
I get down on my knees and pray
I’m waiting for that final moment
You say the words that I can’t say”

I have previously remarked that Bernard Sumner might have the weakest voice among all my favorite bands. “Bizarre Love Triangle” makes perfect use of his minimal range. Here, he sounds completely out of his element, an ordinary man caught up in a situation he has little control over. Many synth-pop hits have difficulty with sincerity, but his mundane stylings mitigate any potential cheesiness. This is not a diss – in the mechanical world of the synthesizer, Sumner brings a vulnerable human element. “Bizarre Love Triangle” achieves musical ecstasy without force.

Everything about this track jitters and bounces. With Sumner acting to restrain these elements, they are sweet without being sugary. To craft a perfect synth-pop hit requires a balancing act – with the default state coming in too high, the best bands counteract this by infusing certain melancholy elements. New Order are experts at this, crafting delectable dance beats that go down easy. Tracks like “Bizarre Love Triangle” are almost ephemeral. This track consists of several dense layers, but they all work in tandem to the point you might not notice the odd tricks New Order pull off. “Bizarre Love Triangle” captures the high of letting yourself get carried away by emotions which you know can only end badly.

114. The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army” (2003)
from the album Elephant

Key lyrics:
“All the words are gonna bleed from me
And I will sing no more”

Being born in 1992, I got to grow up through what might have been rock’s final mainstream hurrah. Pop rock bands achieve spotlight status now and again, but “Seven Nation Army” feels like the last hit of true guitar-driven rock and roll. This is a minimalist masterpiece, striking in its ability to make you ignore its simplicity. There are only two instruments on display here – the definitive bass riff is actually the guitar, explaining why the two sounds never coexist. This results in a simple yet effective structure. The verses are all about the pseudo-bass and Meg White’s hypnotic thump, while the instrumental interludes shift into explosive guitar solos.

This structure explains the wide appeal. “Seven Nation Army” was easy to digest in the pop sphere, but rock enthusiasts were rightfully blown away by Jack White’s godlike skills. After the early 70s, it became increasingly rare for rock songs to be built around a simple riff. To stand out, most bands had to explore more complex elements – there are only so many riffs that can stand alone, and bands like The Rolling Stones and The Kinks seemed to have milked it dry. Jack White managed to drag rock back to its simple roots while mimicking the grandiosity of arena rock. The fact this is nothing more than a guitar and drum set is truly staggering.

113. Prince – “Kiss” (1986)
from the album Parade

Key lyrics:
“You don’t have to be rich to be my girl
You don’t have to be cool to rule my world”

Only Prince could land a #1 hit by singing a piercing falsetto throughout nearly the entire length of a song. “Kiss” could almost be taken as an absurdist piece if not for the sheer artistry on display. Prince is absolutely in his element here. The instrumentation is sparse, lacking a bass entirely and thus letting his odd vocals dominate. Like David Bowie, Prince crafted his image around a gender-defying style – “Kiss” captures that idea purely through sound. He is at once exaggeratedly feminine while singing all about a woman, with rare dips into baritone showing a gruff, masculine edge. Most importantly, these extremes work in tandem to create something uniquely sexy. Prince became a sex icon by not playing to anyone’s expectations.

The funky guitar keeps things grounded. An instrumental break expertly divides the falsetto assault, but Prince only takes that as a challenge. The closing section finds Prince pushing his limits, soon erupting into what I can only describe as a shriek. Falsetto is one thing, but Prince does things with his voice here no person should be able to do. And though this should be unpleasant, the raw delivery acts as a perfect payoff. Few artists could bend the pop world to his will like Prince.

112. The Rolling Stones – “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)
from the album Beggars Banquet

Key lyrics:
“I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys?
Well, after all, it was you and me”

Of the two leading British Invasion bands, The Rolling Stones rarely experimented like The Beatles. They were happy to stick with guitar-oriented rock, and they did it well. “Sympathy for the Devil” is a fluke of sorts, a song that did not sound quite right until they tried out a few variations. They stumbled into this jazz samba sound, with bongos, congas, and a piano taking lead over traditional rock elements. Backing vocalists chant ‘woo woo’ throughout, giving an almost hypnotic appeal. These elements would never come together again in the same way within the pop sphere, marking this a truly incomparable Rolling Stones track.

Mick Jagger is an expert showman, and he plays the devil well. The lyrics rip through a dozen atrocities, only for him to put equal blame on us all. This devil is not an agent of destruction or tempter, but rather a trickster taking pleasure in our societal failings. Not leaving their rock sound completely behind, the electric guitar pops in about halfway through, giving a stray solo for the briefest of moments and only returning during the extended finale. Its sharp edge collide against the otherwise acoustic sound, yet that distinction lets the guitar almost float outside the rest of the track, giving it room to thrive. With “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones stepped outside their comfort zones but still managed to showcase their strongest elements.

111. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps” (2003)
from the album Fever to Tell

Key lyrics:
“Wait, they don’t love you like I love you”

There was a brief period in the early 2000s where I got really into music videos, in an era where MTV2 was still operating as MTV’s music-oriented spinoff station before the rise of YouTube. Few videos struck me quite like hearing “Maps” for the first time. As a ten-year-old, I could not have possibly understood the desperation underpinning this song, but Karen O crying during the video stuck with me. The lyrics are as minimal as they come outside of electronic music, but Karen O sings with such subtly affecting power. This is a woman too crushed to do anything but beg, her quiet demeanor revealing she knows too well nothing will work. After growing up and going through similar experiences, I soon recognized the truth in this song. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do but mutter soft comforts to yourself.

The instrumentation is just as essential. The droning guitar is a perfect lure, and then the drums thunder in like nothing else. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are no fragile indie band – this is a garage act taking a moment to show their vulnerable side. As the grief seemingly overwhelms Karen O, the guitar roars to life with a truly killer solo. The insistent pattern of the drums sting with the numbness of a breakup. “Maps” is an emotional tour de force, its instrumentation filling in the lyrical gaps with emotions that can hardly be expressed through words.

110. Yazoo – “Situation” (1982)
from the album Upstairs at Eric’s

Key lyrics:
“Now he’s in control, he is my lover
Nations stand against him, he’s your brother”

When I first got into Depeche Mode, it was difficult to believe the same band that made “Never Let Me Down Again” and “Enjoy the Silence” kicked off their career with exuberant pop ditty “Just Can’t Get Enough.” If I had been a bit more curious, I would have gotten into Yazoo before 2019. Songwriter Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode soon after their debut, and Upstairs at Eric’s feels like the true continuation of that early sound. This is one of those lucky splits where two great projects emerged; Yazoo might have never achieved the lasting success of Depeche Mode, but Clarke’s work there is the hidden gem of early synth-pop.

Alison Moyet is key to the project, a rare vocalist who can actually match the more energetic side of synth-pop. There is a unique quaver in her voice that heightens her delivery, casting “Situation” as an accusatory song. The lyrics suggest she has been hurt by something or someone, but she will not go down without fighting back. Monotonous backing vocals chant ‘move out’ – she is forcing a change. Clarke’s synth-line is as upbeat and catchy as they come, yet Moyet’s thunderous vocals make it sound almost restrained. Many of my favorite synth-pop acts succeeded by mitigating the seemingly intrinsic lightness of the genre through ironic lyrics or pitching downward. “Situation” is a rare example which embraces every rough edge and runs away with it, the highest form of synth-pop in the raw.

109. Caribou – “Odessa” (2010)
from the album Swim

Key lyrics:
“And I’ve been with you for all of these years
Tell you what I’ve got to show for all of my tears”

Caribou is a master of deeply meditative electronic music. “Odessa” is a somber tale of an abused woman doing the work to leave her partner. The predominant synth-line stutters and swirls, sounding almost like a pained animal. This fades out during the verses, leaving behind an almost atonal bass line. Light percussive elements join in and subtly shift throughout; when the opening synth-line returns, the percussion hops about, shifting in volume as if jumping between channels when not dipping out entirely. Even Snaith’s vocals take on a different edge between verses and chorus. “Odessa” consists of several similar yet distinct bits, expertly fused together in an ever-changing soundscape.

As Snaith hits the middle of the second verse, his voice echoes at a key line. The stuttering synth-line, which has hitherto remained separate from the vocals, fades in during this sequence and wars for the spotlight during the following chorus. Caribou weaponizes the synthesizer, operating it more like an intrusive thought than a supportive element. During the final verse, the synth-line transforms into a momentous arpeggio. With this shift, Snaith’s vocals suggest the central figure will finally take the necessary steps to leave – only for that bitter stutter to return and close out the song. By cutting off before her success, “Odessa” maintains a sense of raw determination.

108. Aphex Twin – “Windowlicker” (1999)
non-album single

There will likely never be a more controversial instrument in popular music than the synthesizer. What some artists saw as a jump into the future was loudly rejected by those who viewed it as an excessive, cold imitation of real instruments. Several artists have put in great effort to show the human side of the synthesizer, while others found comfort in the robotic future. “Windowlicker” feels like a vicious assault from every angle. There is no humanity here, nor a chromatic vision. This is a calculated nightmare, as if Aphex Twin looked to the surface-level horror of his previous single, “Come to Daddy,” and decided to show us what a real electronic monstrosity could sound like. Yet the sheer coldness proves those other bands right – the amount of effort required to strip electronic music of its soul makes every other act look human.

As such, “Windowlicker” is an exercise in unpleasantness, more a proof of concept than anything. Yet something mesmerizing exists below it seemingly impenetrable surface. The trick of being designed around unpredictable elements is that an experienced listener knows what to expect. Once you adjust to the unusual sound, “Windowlicker” becomes a singularly bizarre dance track. The final trick Aphex Twin pulls off is a reminder that even the most extreme music is rooted in the human experience.

107. The Beach Boys – “God Only Knows” (1966)
from the album Pet Sounds

Like most of The Beach Boys’ greatest hits, the complexity of “God Only Knows” is often overlooked in the popular conscious. Brian Wilson has a phenomenal talent to make dense instrumentation and odd key choices appear effortless. There are well over a dozen instruments features on this track, and they all play a key part while fusing into a cohesive Wall of Sound. You can pick out the sleigh bells and clip-clop percussion if you pay close attention, but it is just as easy to let these stray sounds meld into one. From the beginning, The Beach Boys were celebrated for their close vocal harmonies; with “God Only Knows,” they successfully applied that close arrangement to a massive soundscape.

This colossal backdrop serves to heighten the vocal performance. Carl Wilson sings alone for the first minute, but then other voices rise together during an interlude. The song then sets back into Carl alone; with how iconic “God Only Knows” is for its harmonies, its striking how much of this consists of a lone voice. The finale is just that grandiose, with Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Bruce Johnston singing in rounds, each vocalist seemingly struggling to outdo one another and get in the last word. Few popular songs have ever achieved such seamlessly intricate design.

106. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (2002)
from the album American IV: The Man Comes Around

Key lyrics:
“Everyone I know
Goes away in the end”

It has been said enough times at this point to no longer be a bold statement – the greatest song Johnny Cash ever recorded was his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” released less than a year before his death. This was not an easy achievement. Cash had already recorded three songs that could compete for the title of greatest country song ever, by any artist. And though Cash had been making cover albums for nearly a decade by this point, none of his other covers received anywhere near the same attention. The choice of Nine Inch Nails was not as shocking as it might sound, as Cash had already covered Tom Waits and Nick Cave at this point.

The simple strength of “Hurt” is how it reconstitutes the meaning of the original song. Johnny Cash takes the perspective of a suicidal young man and transforms it into the regretful tale of an old man nearing death. This is what every cover song wishes it could be, casting new meaning with the same words. It does not seek to replace or imitate but rather coexist with the original, exposing a universal element to Trent Reznor’s desperate emotions. But Cash simultaneously creates something rare, a piece by an artist all too aware of his impending death. He sings with so much emotion, his voice trembling with age. His version of “Hurt” is among the most poignant pieces of art about mortality.

105. R.E.M. – “Nightswimming” (1992)
from the album Automatic for the People

Key lyrics:
“And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?”

Hot off the success of “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. seemed at a loss over what to do next. The resulting album embraced those scattered thoughts, resulting in one of the finest records of the 1990s. Perhaps we got lucky – mainstream rock was embracing grunge at this point, and R.E.M. would soon follow that trend and never recover. Songs like “Nightswimming” painted the band as anything but scene chasers. Many of the songs off Automatic for the People tossed aside a traditional rock instrument or two, but this particular track leaves no traces of the genre. Instead, a piano leads against a string arrangement.

“Nightswimming” is a minimalist ballad, and an unbelievably pretty one at that. Though not shouting out rage like his contemporaries, Michael Stipe suitably bares all as his words hint at skinny dipping. But this is not a provocative song. Rather, Stipe is conjuring a place where the truth is overwhelmingly present. It is altogether bittersweet, a reflection on a moment of finding oneself while also realizing how much has changed in the intervening years. With such a minimal sound, Stipe reveals himself to be a true vocal powerhouse. Yet it is the piano that keeps drawing me back. It seemingly rolls over itself in an endless loop, suggesting infinite interpretations of our memories. “Nightswimming” is nostalgia in musical form.

104. The Who – “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971)
from the album Who’s Next

Key lyrics:
“Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss”

The Who were far from the first rock band to use a synthesizer, but the two big tracks off Who’s Next feel like nothing which came before. With Terry Riley referenced by the title of the first track, The Who openly shared their inspiration. They did not work the synthesizer in as just another rock instrument, but instead used it as an atmospheric backdrop. As such, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” plays two distinct parts at once. The ever-present synthesizer showcased the potential for the new instrument outside of dedicated electronic pieces, while its largely atmospheric presence allowed the more traditional rock elements to go all-out. Even with the synthesizer lightly floating about, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” goes as hard as classic rock gets.

The extended outro is the stuff of legends. The synthesizer takes lead for an extended break, all other instruments dropping out. After a chaotic six and a half minutes, this creates an unusual moment of levity. Then, Keith Moon rockets in with a phenomenal drum solo. While the synthesizer had been kept at a distance throughout, this combination reveals an unexpected versatility; the hard and soft sounds complement one another, exaggerating the other’s strength. Then, Roger Daltrey gives what just might be the most cathartic scream in all of rock history. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a genuine hard rock epic.

103. Sharon Van Etten – “Your Love is Killing Me” (2014)
from the album Are We There

Key lyrics:
“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you
Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you
Burn my skin so I can’t feel you
Stab my eyes so I can’t see”

There is something colossal about the slowly thundering drums that open “Your Love is Killing Me.” For Sharon Van Etten, nothing less than an earthshattering rumble could do justice to the toxic relationship that inspired this track. The lyrics during the chorus are just as extreme. She lists off several methods of self-harm she would be willing to take just to silence her misplaced love. Among a sea of violent break-up songs, “Your Love is Killing Me” holds a visceral edge by taking the language of threats and turning it inward. This is a woman driven so far to the breaking point that she would sooner hurt herself than give her lover permission to do any more harm.

Her vocals do justice to the torment within every line. The way she cuts short the phrase “stab my eyes so I can’t see” just to stretch out that final word, to emphasize the harm while erasing his presence, is riveting. Even worse is when she modifies the third chorus, twisting that phrase to suggest she will now blind herself to his harm instead. Few songs have so perfectly summarized the dangerously intoxicating nature of love. After absolutely eviscerating this man, she admits an urge to stay simply to avoid the pain of being without love. Few artists have reduced themselves to such a vulnerable state, yet Sharon Van Etten shows just as much strength through her powerful performance – though the lyrics reveal no clear ending, we can tell she escaped.

102. FKA twigs – “Cellophane” (2019)
from the album Magdalene

Key lyrics:
“All wrapped in cellophane, the feelings that we had”

A true sense of vulnerability is difficult to achieve. Lyrics alone are rarely enough. There needs to be something raw in the performance to truly strike at our hearts. FKA twigs has spent most of her career crafting complex soundscapes and modifying her voice, but she stripped that all away for “Cellophane.” Much of the track is supported by nothing but a slow, distorted piano. As she reflects on a relationship, she can do little more than ask why she was never good enough. It’s the type of torment anyone who has been broken up with can understand. The following lines then get a little more personal, noting the unwanted attention she received in the spotlight. Her words paint a cruel picture of a relationship torn apart by outside pressure.

FKA twigs’ voice is as delicate as glass. It is fitting that, at the exact halfway mark as she drops the title of the track, a short burst of electronics rises and shatters around her. The instrumentation subtly begins to creak and groan during the final minute, yet her voice remains centered. She offers no relief as she closes the song with a wispy lament. “Cellophane” is a raw piano ballad, its singular burst of energy enough to help sustain FKA twigs’ incomparable grief.

101. Curtis Mayfield – “Move On Up” (1970)
from the album Curtis

Key lyrics:
“Take nothing less
Than the supreme best”

Few songs rocket immediately into life like Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” Frantic conga drums kick things off, keeping up an inimitable energy throughout. The percussion alone would be enough to make this a classic. What the horns lack in insistent energy is made up for in optimistic blasts. While Mayfield sings, the horns chime in like enthusiastic punctuation. Between the verses, the horns get increasingly wild. Through the lyrics, Mayfield promises a better life is possible. In a hectic world, “Move On Up” asks us to take a deep breath and recognize the positive changes. It is a celebration of what could be.

In an unusual move for popular music, the full version of “Move On Up” closes out with an extended instrumental section. Mayfield recognized the sheer velocity of the instrumentation and lets it run itself out. Nine minutes of this could seem excessive, but this is nine minutes of reassurance and bliss. This is a bright and shiny vision of a better tomorrow, so joyous it can make you forget fifty years have passed without much changing. But even if that better world never arrives, it is music like “Move On Up” that helps us carry on with heads held high.

My Top 250 Songs Part 5 (#150-126)

150. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games” (2011)
from the album Born to Die

Key lyrics:
“He holds me in his big arms,
Drunk and I am seeing stars
This is all I think of”

A couple years before Lorde took melancholy pop mainstream, Lana Del Rey was already crooning from her preemptive deathbed. It’s not that “Video Games” has particularly depressing subject matter, but rather that Lana Del Rey sings with a fatalistic edge. The mundane themes of ordinary love are cast against bombastic instrumentation – there is no explicit acknowledgement that this relationship has ended, but everything about the production informs this perspective. Lana Del Rey successfully casts herself as a star, using “Video Games” as a melancholy nostalgia piece on the life she has given up to achieve that fame. And she found the perfect modern Rosebud, longing for something as simple as watching her lover play video games.

The production is mesmerizing and lush. A string section plays this up as something grandiose; such themes could have easily been taken as sentimental, but the song instead captures the wonders of ordinary life. A snare drum helps the song subtly rumble into and out from the chorus. The second chorus adds a louder pulse; these contrasting elements sell the sense of loss. Everything adds up to a perfect pop showstopper. Though Lana Del Rey had several fumbles in the immediate aftermath of this release, “Video Games” was so singularly impressive as to guarantee an attentive audience through every mistake.

149. Nico – “These Days” (1967)
from the album Chelsea Girl

Key lyrics:
“Please don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them”

Underpinning the simple beauty of “These Days” is a complex mess of production issues; the success here feels like a fluke. Nico’s career as a musician seems to have come about through Andy Warhol’s insistence, first forcing her into The Velvet Underground before this solo work. Her low voice and thick accent, while affecting in its own right, has a niche appeal that likely would have floundered without Warhol backing her every step. Even this song does not belong to her alone, being written by Jackson Browne at age 16 and having him play guitar on the recording. To add another complexity, the string arrangement that feels so essential was snuck onto the record by the producer, Tom Wilson.

Though credited alone, Nico was clearly denied creative control over this track. Nevertheless, everything comes together to emphasize her unique qualities. The intense melancholy of her voice is emphasized by the strings, while Browne’s fingerpicking adds just enough air – this is not a depressive track but a reflective one. That sense of reflection works wonders with her voice; though her work with The Velvet Underground only seemed to work due to the intentional messiness of their debut, “These Days” allowed Nico to play in her own element. This track proves that even a rough voice can be made beautiful with precise production.

148. Justice – “D.A.N.C.E.” (2007)
from the album Cross

Following in the footsteps of Daft Punk’s Discovery album, Justice laid out a perfect house hit by openly paying homage to a childhood influence. “D.A.N.C.E.” is a giant, loving tribute to Michael Jackson, the lyrics quoting several lines from his songs. To channel the spirit of a young Michael Jackson, Justice brought in a children’s choir to do the vocals. The song shifts back and forth between chaotic pileups and solo lines – but even those lone deliveries are made larger than life. “Do the dance” is repeated over and over, sometimes decaying into a stuttering echo. Few songs have made child singers sound so cool.

Throughout, “D.A.N.C.E.” is a production marvel. The song opens with static interference, and the shift to perfect clarity hits like a bomb. While “D.A.N.C.E.” consists of a lot of familiar, repetitive elements, Justice mixes them together into unique combinations throughout. The most stunning section comes just after the two and a half minute mark, most of the instruments dropping out aside from the piano. The groovy bassline then returns to pull the song back to its full force, only for the song to shift into a bubbly outro. “D.A.N.C.E.” is a rare house hit that refuses to settle into a comfortable groove.

147. Daft Punk – “One More Time” (2000)
from the album Discovery

Key lyrics:
“We don’t stop
You can’t stop”

Daft Punk’s Discovery album is a celebration of the disco era, cheese and all, and “One More Time” is the track that sets everything into motion. And this particular track truly is a celebration, its central sound so bright and cheery it would be cloying if not for a sense of raw exuberance. The band makes great use of auto-tune, intentionally modulating guest vocalist Romanthony’s part to find a perfect balance between man and machine. The crackle of his delivery add a funky quality most bands only achieve with multiple vocalists.

Just as the central loop risks wearing thin, the track shifts gear. Everything but the drums and vocals are seemingly dragged underwater – and then the beat drops out, too. Romanthony’s vocals turn downright soulful, emphasized by the minimal sonic backdrop. A tambourine arrives in the middle of this extended break, suggesting the party might soon return before being silenced twenty seconds later. Daft Punk are milking this bridge for all its worth. After nearly two minutes of muted instrumentation, the electronic horns slowly rise back up, a truly glorious transition back to the beginning. Through this arrangement, Daft Punk morph the familiar starting point into a spine-tingling payoff – this party could go on forever.

146. Underworld – “Born Slippy .NUXX” (1995)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“She smiled at you boy”

“Born Slippy .NUXX” turns repetition into hypnosis. No matter the context, every short phrase Karl Hyde speaks in the first three minutes is punctuated by the word ‘boy.’ This rambling performance suggests something like being commanded by a drunken stranger – his meaning is hard to discern, but you are certain he’s addressing you specifically. This uneasy, slimy feeling lingers across the full ten minutes, even as the vocals drop out and the song goes full trance. “Born Slippy” is a furious minimalist piece with the scale of a progressive epic. It is the sonic equivalent of meeting a new friend at a skeevy bar, only to have your arm unexpectedly stick to the leather as you reach up for a handshake.

The mesmerizing element is how stripped down this becomes while maintaining a distinct identity. By the time it reaches the back half, “Born Slippy” descends into extended segments consisting of nothing more than the beat. But like any techno great, the song dithers about with several stray elements, all made cohesive by their consistently disparate nature. This is a full musical odyssey, chained together by an insistent beat. Though little of it sounds pleasant in any traditional sense, the demanding opening and frenetic repetition always leave me hooked.

145. Stardust – “Music Sounds Better With You” (1998)
non-album single

If we were to judge bands based on the average quality of their music, Stardust would probably take the top spot. “Music Sounds Better With You” was the only song recorded under this name, but it stands as an all-time great house track. Its place in the electronic music canon makes better sense once you look at the individual members, which includes one half of Daft Punk. This operates as a bridge between the first two Daft Punk albums, lightening the atmosphere from Homework while maintaining its insistent structure. The production veers close to pop territory, but steady vocal loops confirm the house roots.

More than anything, “Music Sounds Better With You” feels like a key step in electronic music shedding its sometimes cold exterior. There is nothing robotic about this track. Benjamin Diamond’s vocals are sensual, while the central guitar hook is classic disco. This showcased what electronic music could do in the pop sphere, all while maintaining a singular focus on the dancefloor. While the song occasionally dips into distinct segments, it is happy to linger on its central hook. Simply put, Stardust stumbled across a perfect ten seconds of music and decided to let it soar. With something this strong, who needs more?

144. The Orb – “Little Fluffy Clouds” (1990)
from the album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

Key lyrics:
“And the clouds would catch the colors everywhere
That’s neat, cause I used to look at them all the time when I was little
You don’t see that”

With “Little Fluffy Clouds,” The Orb found a unique method of creating a simple pleasure. The entire track is built around sampling a Rickie Lee Jones interview. She sounds blazed out of her mind while ranting about clouds, and The Orb go all in on simulating her apparent bliss. Much like actual clouds, “Little Fluffy Clouds” feels gigantic while lacking density. This is not a bad thing. As an ambient house track, “Little Fluffy Clouds” is built to return the energy you put in. The dance elements are just subtle enough that one can easily zone out and take it in without any effort.

The Orb achieve this by mixing spacey synthesizers with a simple yet effective beat. The persistence of the Rickie Lee Jones sampling assists both elements. As the synths bubble into the stratosphere, Jones feels right there with them, absolutely amazed by the experience. She is made an unwitting tour guide, almost sounding regal with this production. Simultaneously, The Orb chop her words up, reducing her to a skittering stutter which occasionally forms part of the beat. The whole track is an exercise in how non-musical samples can be recontextualized into something magnificent. “Little Fluffy Clouds” is a blast of silliness that lingers long after the novelty should have worn off, all thanks to its stellar production.

143. Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit” (1967)
from the album Surrealistic Pillow

Key lyrics:
“Go ask Alice”

While plenty of songs from the 1960s toyed with drug references, few have felt as lasting as “White Rabbit.” With this song, Grace Slick forever linked Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel with hippie culture. The lyrics are a loving homage from someone who manufactured an unintended message.

Yet the subject matter is only a minor part of what makes “White Rabbit” a true classic of psychedelic rock. The structure here is something few artists seem to even consider attempting. The song begins with a steady marching rhythm. There is no chorus or real hook. Each verse simply rises into the next, the drumbeat forever suggesting the song is only taking off. It is not until we reach the final lines that the song truly shifts gears, but then it is over. “White Rabbit” simply builds tension over its two and a half minutes, all towards one short burst. This moment is cathartic, but it can also leave one wanting for more. Taken as a whole, the song feels like an intro to a larger piece that does not exist. This could have been a frustrating experience, but this design makes “White Rabbit” feel like few others. The entire song operates as one gigantic crescendo.

142. Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On” (1971)
from the album What’s Going On

Key lyrics:
“Don’t punish me
With brutality”

In an era defined by protest songs, “What’s Going On” stands out by turning more to weariness than anger. While plenty of others preached peace, love, and understanding, Marvin Gaye frames it with the right amount of introspection. He knows this will not be an easy path – but it is also the only real path to a better tomorrow. The sound remains downcast as Marvin Gaye pleas for people to listen. He directly addresses the audience through familial term; ‘mother,’ ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ ‘father’ begin the verses and punctuate the chorus. To truly achieve change, Gaye knew everyone needed to play a part.

The production on “What’s Going On” signaled a new direction for soul music. The song starts with a chattering crowd, immediately suggesting an inner city atmosphere. The slower, melancholy tone was densely packed – the emphasis was no longer on vocals but a complex soundscape. But that’s not to say Marvin Gaye failed to deliver an era-defining performance. Inspired by a studio accident, he decided to layer his vocals, allowing key moments to split in two beautiful directions. The combination of this with the chatter and backing vocals creates a truly communal experience – to tackle all these issues in one breath, Gaye crafted an all-encompassing sound.

141. Elbow – “One Day Like This” (2008)
from the album The Seldom Seen Kid

Key lyrics:
“Throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right”

It is easy to trace the origins of “One Day Like This.” In many ways, Elbow come off as the less popular twin of Coldplay. Meaning, both bands clearly take after the lighter songs by Radiohead circa The Bends. With Radiohead quickly drifting toward the experimental, this is a rare case where shameless imitation is respectable. Elbow and Coldplay offer a window into what could have been if Radiohead stuck with this light alternative sound. “One Day Like This” is a rare example where I actually prefer the imitation – Elbow spent years mastering this style, and this particular track carries an astronomical weight.

When someone refers to a rock song as ‘epic,’ certain concepts come to mind. Almost certainly, there has to be a scene stealing guitar solo somewhere. “One Day Like This” is an epic in its own distinct way. It comes off almost like a progressive wedding song. The definitive element is a soaring string section, ebbing and flowing throughout the first half before erupting into that colossal finale. Guy Garvey’s voice captures a sense of elation as he remarks upon a most wondrous day. Though the lyrics threatens the obvious fact that such moments are rare, Elbow absolutely live in this serenity. The outro takes up the entire back half of the song, a dozen voices singing in harmony. Without a trace of sentimentality, “One Day Like This” manages to create an overwhelmingly joyful atmosphere.

140. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream” (2011)
from the album James Blake

Key lyrics:
“I’m falling, falling, falling, falling
Might as well fall in”

The impact of a song can change immensely depending on the context in which it is heard. I knew “The Wilhelm Scream” for several months before it fully clicked. I liked it just enough to put it at the end of a mix CD which I kept in my car for the rare trip. I was returning from visiting my first boyfriend when this song came on in the dark of night on an empty highway. Few experiences in my life have ever felt so revelatory. The dense, pulsing layers never came through properly on my tinny laptop speakers – this experience was enough to push me towards investing in a better sound system.

“The Wilhelm Scream” is an isolating experience. James Blake frantically repeats the same phrases, modifying a key word here and there. The music keeps building, as if trying to drown him out. There is not much complexity to any individual element, but the way they intersect and override each other is mesmerizing. James Blake does his dense production justice, belting out his part with so much soul – his impact not just on electronic music but contemporary R&B starts here. Like “Archangel” before it, “The Wilhelm Scream” fills a dense atmosphere with enough humanity to strike with unexpected resonance.

139. ANOHNI – “Drone Bomb Me” (2016)
from the album HOPELESSNESS

Key lyrics:
“Let me be the first
I’m not so innocent”

On several songs, ANOHNI has toyed with the idea of playing a willing victim. The obvious route while writing a protest song is to remark upon the harm done and beg for change. ANOHNI instead drops into the heart of the matter. On “Drone Bomb Me,” she plays a Middle Eastern girl begging to be taken with her parents during a bomb strike. The complexity around the issue is intentionally reduced, the song instead playing exclusively within this dark fantasy. Gory details are replaced with fantastic imagery. It is a portrait of absolute devastation forced into a palatable state.

The synthesizer glimmers and sparkles. A strong drumbeat suggests this to be a dance song. ANOHNI sings with so much hope in her voice that it masks the bitter irony. On a sonic level, this is a flawless piece of electronic art pop, with every other line written to call upon stock love song phrases. It borders on sinister, how easily this can blend in with similar songs. The listener is asked to analyze the lyrics to get at the vehement rage at its heart. ANOHNI aims to repulse us through the glossy presentation and thus question why we allow our news media to do the same.

138. Kate Bush – “Hounds of Love” (1985)
from the album Hounds of Love

Key lyrics:
“I found a fox, caught by dogs
He let me take him in my hands
His little heart, it beat so fast
And I’m ashamed of running away”

“Hounds of Love” is a deceptive slice of art pop. With propulsive drums, a forceful cello, and the hum of a synthesizer, Kate Bush suggests something massive. It is easy to overlook that there is not much more to it, other than her voice. Having always had an ear for a classical sound, Kate Bush managed to craft a maximalist atmosphere out of a minimal arrangement. This is assisted by her always distinct vocal style. In addition to her usual singing, she layers herself for the backing vocals, which evolves into something akin to barking at key moments. In true art pop fashion, all of these elements add up to something both immediately accessible yet completely distinct from anything else.

The raw passion in Kate Bush’s voice is phenomenal. Her first lines carry a frantic edge, only to soften up and grow quieter as she first remarks upon the hounds of love. This shift suggests a haunted feeling, as though she is afraid to speak up. Her frantic energy bubbles up again during the chorus, reaching a high as she rolls through the word ‘throw.’ This energy takes on a reflective quality during verse two, as she describes an encounter with a fox. As the chorus returns, a subtle shift creates a hopeful atmosphere – ‘someone’ becomes ‘darling.’ The idea of falling in love can be terrifying from a distance, but Kate Bush finds comfort in the actual act.

137. Björk – “Bachelorette” (1997)
from the album Homogenic

Key lyrics:
“I’m a fountain of blood
In the shape of a girl”

In the first line of “Bachelorette,” Björk declares herself a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl. This opening line is loaded with metaphorical meaning and visceral imagery, the weight of which a lesser song might collapse under. Instead, it sets the stage beautifully for the tense experience that follows. A train-like beat establishes a sense of motion contradicted by the strings and Björk’s tendency to draw out each line. Where I described “Joga” as the atmospheric backing track for a climactic romance scene, “Bachelorette” feels like a genuine showstopper. Björk belts out her lines with the articulation of a stage performer; she wants you to hear each and every one of these desperate pleas.

Pop rarely sounds this intimidating, art pop or otherwise. Björk is a woman on a warpath, never outright threatening but instead warning of dire consequences for any betrayal. The lyrics maintain an evocative quality throughout, matching the density of that opening line. And though each verse begins by casting her in an inhuman role, they mask a very human sense of hurt. During the second verse, she is a path of cinders – something which can do real harm but also exists only to be stepped on. Through this intense mix of lyricism and instrumentation, Björk breaks love down to an ugly core.

136. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs – “Matador” (1993)
from the album Vasos Vacíos

“Matador” exists at an intersection between modern and traditional forms of music. At its heart, this could be referred to as ska, but the Latin influences run so deep that this defies simple categorization. The prominent use of candombe drums add another layer. And though candombe would be considered a traditional genre, the combination with modern rock feels almost too perfect. Ska has always been a confrontational genre, but it has never felt more commanding than while paired with these drums. This massive rhythm section combined with the shouts gives a communal quality, like the band is leading a street parade.

With most ska acts, the percussion tends toward peppy rhythms. This typically results in a laidback atmosphere, one that sometimes rubs me as disingenuously upbeat. By dropping that aspect entirely, the horn section which serves as the other pillar of ska takes on an entirely different form. In “Matador,” the horns suggest building tension. Perhaps this is not a street parade but a riot. Even without knowing the language, “Matador” is a deeply evocative title. The atmosphere suggests not just a bullfighter but a warrior. With the political context of the actual lyrics, this is a marching song demanding its listeners come out fighting.

135. Bob Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)
from the album Highway 61 Revisited

Key lyrics:
“How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”

“Like a Rolling Stone” has solidified its place in the upper echelons of popular music for good reason. When Bob Dylan picked up the electric guitar, the world of folk music changed forever. Folk was among the last popular bastions for acoustic guitar, and this song proved an existential threat – with a rising star like Bob Dylan going electric, what future would the genre have? Bob Dylan took rock music and made his own distinct blend of the two, maintaining his lyrical excellence while expanding his sound. This is one of those revolutions that became so ubiquitous that any idea of controversy is likely lost on my generation. But long before Rolling Stone magazine declared this the greatest song of all time, Bob Dylan was booed during the first live performance.

For this to successfully spawn folk rock as a popular genre, the song itself had to be excellent. Beyond the electric guitar, the instrumentation is top of the line – the Hammond organ and harmonica are just as key to establishing the distinct sound. The lyrics are strong, including one of the greatest choruses ever written. With all the high praise, people seem to overlook just how catty Bob Dylan is being on a lot of his best hits. “Like a Rolling Stone” absolutely eviscerates an unnamed woman. Imagine annoying an artist so much that he commits musical sacrilege to help kick-start a new genre just to diss you.

134. Billie Holiday – “Strange Fruit” (1939)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”

This is a rare song where I specifically remember my first listen. My high school history teacher began a class by playing “Strange Fruit.” I do not believe any other hour of my high school experience was so quiet – Billie Holiday sings with enough power to shut a bunch of white kids up real quick. The rest of that class was a grotesque necessity – it says a lot about this song that it has haunted me as much as the horrid postcards we were made to observe. Certain people would do anything to erase that history, but works like this ensure it remains in the popular conscious. “Strange Fruit” is a prime example of why art should be political.

You can find several versions of this song. No matter which you choose, the impact remains the same. All it needs is Billie Holiday’s stunning vocals and those gut-wrenching lyrics. The words paint a visceral image of the American South, speaking of hanging bodies like common fruit. Like dozens of holocaust films, “Strange Fruit” is a reason I shy away from the term ‘favorite.’ This song crawls beneath my skin. Art can be fun, even an escape, but it is the lasting impact that makes something truly stick. “Strange Fruit” is a strikingly unpleasant experience, and it is so very important that it exists.

133. Robyn – “Dancing On My Own” (2010)
from the album Body Talk

Key lyrics:
“I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her
I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?”

Club songs are typically designed to be upbeat – who wants to go out dancing and be sad about it? At the same time, the actual process of using a club to meet people can be a typically disappointing affair. Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” captures that mixed experience. The music is pounding, a perfect dance track, yet Robyn finds herself watching an ex with a new lover. Like rubbernecking, she can’t look away, no matter how much it hurts. In an act of sad defiance, she ends each chorus by dancing alone – she can get through this, but boy is it tough.

The synthesizer on this track throbs – the flurry of notes are contradicted by their repetition. The bridge is key to the experience. Though the surrounding pieces are much the same, the bridge itself drops out much of the instrumentation to emphasize Robyn’s sadness. When the drums break her free from this momentary despair, the song takes on a new form. Her distant brooding starts to read as self-love. Her idle watching which first read as self-destructive feels like a necessary act – seeing this ex with someone new is key to moving on. Until she finds someone new, she can find solace in dancing alone. “Dancing On My Own” creates the perfect atmosphere for breaking out of those lonely moods.

132. Bright Eyes – “First Day of My Life” (2005)
from the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

Key lyrics:
“I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you”

Writing a sincere love song without a hint of sentimentality is difficult to achieve. With “First Day of My Life,” Bright Eyes hits the right note by starting at a downward angle. The opening lines suggest a man walking outside to blow off steam after a fight, only to realize the strength of his feelings while alone. This messy side shows Bright Eyes is not placing love on some magical pedestal. Minor disagreements can explode into more, and this song hones in on that fragile feeling that you might be about to lose everything. “First Day of My Life” reflects on love, not through rose-colored glasses but with perfect clarity.

The most intense declaration is framed as an old quote from the partner. Through this distance, Conor Oberst drains any sentimentality by making it an observation. Presented directly from a singer, these lines would read as an overstatement – as something a lover might say to another, it reads as perfectly authentic. Adding to the authenticity is how the song largely avoids metaphors. One comes in during the final chorus, but Oberst turns the trope on its head. Love is a paycheck. This almost feels reductionist; where most songwriters rely on flowery language, Oberst uses something mechanical. But he is aiming for a higher truth: love requires constant effort or else it ends. “First Day of My Life” suggests the true beauty of love is in its mundanity.

131. Bob Dylan – “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975)
from the album Blood on the Tracks

Key lyrics:
“We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view”

Whether discussing the current political climate or simply tearing into an old friend who slighted him, Bob Dylan goes all in with his lyrics. His voice may be harsh, but his odd inflections help articulate his dense writing. “Tangled Up in Blue” feels like his most monumental achievement. Though it is far from his longest song, the lyrics suggest grand swaths of time while being littered with classical references. This is a man giving a full tour of his love life, grit and all. The amount of detail alone is astounding; the fact he manages this while maintaining a complex rhyme scheme is truly breathtaking.

The ambling guitar perfectly matches Bob Dylan’s unusual cadence. The verses stick to a strict structure, but the instrumentation subtly grows denser with each repetition. This growing sound is matched by his delivery as he begins to draw out certain words. This is one of the ultimate Bob Dylan songs because it is so clearly written for his voice. No one can do “Tangled Up in Blue” better, as it so clearly comes from a specific person. Just to confirm this, the song naturally ends with a sudden harmonica solo. Bob Dylan is a man of many talents, but lyrical storytelling is his most impressive, with “Tangled Up in Blue” serving as a perfect showcase.

130. Miles Davis – “So What” (1959)
from the album Kind of Blue

“So What” begins with a perfect build-up. The song starts quiet, with just a piano and bass. The central riff ambles about, punctuated by two louder notes. This instrumental call and response is essential to the track. The other instruments slowly join in during the response, the song growing louder with each addition. After a minute and a half, the song enters a smoother section. Throughout, the band suggests something to be growing, yet the expansive sound is also soothing. After a flurry of solos, the song ends by circling back to the beginning. Two notes have rarely held such power.

For me, the strength of jazz is its ability to generate specific moods purely through instrumentation. “So What” places me in a mode of active thinking. Those two notes are an interruption, making it impossible to settle into the groove even once they fade away. This should be easy listening, but the opening trains its audience to anticipate sudden change. Though played at a moderate tempo, the combined effect is something busy. The return of those two notes immediately ends the tension, helping kick off a strong outro. Miles Davis has tons of technical greats, but “So What” is his rare piece with pop appeal.

129. Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Dogg – “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)
from the album The Chronic

Key lyrics:
“You never been on a ride like this befo’
With a producer who can rap and control the micstro”

Obviously, hardcore hip hop was already well-established by the time Dr. Dre released The Chronic – Dre himself had been a member of N.W.A. Despite the quality of those earlier records, there was a decidedly niche element limiting their appeal. This particular subgenre is designed with a certain audience in mind, and those involved had no reason to consider outsiders. But something about “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” had an undeniable mainstream appeal, stopped just short of hitting #1 on the Billboard charts when the only rap songs to reach those heights were largely novelties like “Ice Ice Baby” and “Baby Got Back.”

There are a few obvious elements to this success. Foremost is Dr. Dre’s sampling, notably from a 1970s Leon Haywood track. The original song is rather mundane and light, but Dr. Dre snips out just the right portion and amplifies it into something extraordinary. The best sampling recontextualizes the original recording, and this sample is turned into something striking and cool. Then there’s Snoop Dogg, who has a decidedly chill delivery. In a genre dominated by aggression, Snoop Dogg asked everyone to relax and take it easy for a moment. “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” dropped much of the typical gangster rap subject matter, operating as a perfect party jam. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg achieve mainstream accessibility while maintaining an undeniably cool atmosphere, establishing a template many rappers would follow.

128. Joni Mitchell – “A Case of You” (1971)
from the album Blue

Key lyrics:
“Part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time”

It takes a special skill to make such a touching minimalist track. Joni Mitchell is accompanied by nothing but a dulcimer and acoustic guitar. This minimal arrangement puts her voice in the spotlight, and does she ever run away with it. Words are drawn out to a breaking point, moments of heightened emotion find her voice growing ever higher. Her voice quavers with vulnerability, singing with utmost sincerity. Though the piece might be simple, few can sing quite like Joni.

“A Case of You” stands apart from other love songs due to its angle. The very first line sets its subject matter in the past – but this is not a breakup song. Rather, this is a lovingly nostalgic reflection on a relationship that could not last. Moments like this are exceedingly rare. To be able to look at a past romance not with hate or sadness but a simple acknowledgment of its foundational effect captures a flurry of emotions. This is sad and happy in the same breath. The lyrics are exceptional, starting with Joni cutting down one of his grandiose phrases before turning herself to metaphor. She casts him as being in her blood, too familiar to carry any more impact yet an essential part of her existence. “A Case of You” captures a bittersweet emotion some might never get a chance to experience otherwise.

127. The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go” (1964)
from the album Where Did Our Love Go

Right before the British Invasion really took off, popular music in the 1960s seemed headed in a very different direction. This was the age of the girl group, bands of young women singing in close harmony supported by some of the best songwriters and producers of the era. Most of the lasting megahits from this era have a celebratory or high energy atmosphere. “Where Did Our Love Go,” on the other hand, is surprisingly mellow. Diana Ross leads with the gentlest vocals imaginable, even while singing about a failed relationship. The foot stomping percussion lends a dynamic element to an otherwise simple beat. The backing vocals exist at a distance, coming off as echoes of Ross’s sentiments.

Other than a brief saxophone solo right in the middle, there is not much variance to this short track. This simplicity works to establish “Where Did Our Love Go” as a purely emotive piece. Diana Ross plays a woman stunned by the sudden end of a relationship, rambling lyrics suggesting a total loss for words. This is soul music in a distilled form. Sometimes emotions are too extreme for words, and The Supremes capture so much longing and ghostly despair despite the surface level pleasantness.

126. Big Thief – “Not” (2019)
from the album Two Hands

Key lyrics:
“It’s not the hunger revealing
Nor the ricochet in the cave”

The lyrics of “Not” cut deep in a way I have rarely encountered. Off the top of my head, the only song that compares is Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire.” Both have an insistent structure. But where “Who By Fire” is simply listing off the many ways to die, “Not” remains nebulous in its meaning. What does it mean to describe something only through negation? We are given everything ‘it’ is not without a clear hint of the actual subject matter. The experience is legitimately upsetting. Adrianne Lenker’s vocals are oozing with devastation, but the lack of solid details warps our ability to empathize. We are asked to understand emotion without context.

By the third verse, Lenker delivers some of the rawest vocals indie rock has ever seen. The way she tears through the phrase “it’s not the hunger revealing” is revelatory. The final chorus is practically shouted, the emotions too overwhelming. And then words finally lose all impact. In a song about the inability to express emotions verbally, Big Thief expertly decide to drop the vocals entirely. They are replaced by a nearly three minute guitar solo. In an era where guitar has seen less emphasis, Big Thief show the power of an expertly timed solo. This is an all-time great, morphing the energy of the vocals into an extended, explosive finale. “Not” is made up familiar pieces – the poignant lyricism of folk, the grunge aesthetic, and an electrifying classic rock closer. But by being so many things at once, it’s not anything but itself.

My Top 250 Songs Part 4 (#175-151)

175. The Knife – “Silent Shout” (2006)
from the album Silent Shout

Key lyrics:
“In a dream I lost my teeth again
Calling me woman and a half man
Yes in a dream all my teeth fell out
A cracked smile and a silent shout”

House is a genre that I tend to associate with, if not warmth, at least relative frivolity. This is a genre made for clubs, places to escape from the stress of everyday life. “Silent Shout” feels like an intentional antithesis, featuring all the driving synthesizer you could want but cast from the darkest pits of human torment. This is not a song for raves but the horrid aftermath, like stumbling through the darkest woods from unknown assailants while coming down from a bad trip. “Silent Shout” is horror as music.

The percussion is demanding, forceful, its repetitive beat a haunting presence throughout the track. Karin Dreijer layers their voice atop itself, one a low register suggesting something demonic while the others retain a human quality. The lyrics are a trip themselves, a surrealist nightmare of finding oneself incapable of speaking. Through the dark sound, a sadder truth forms – this is a song of the oppressed and forgotten, too unsightly to garner proper attention. More than an atmospheric piece alone, this is a house track at heart, and a glorious one at that. The synthesizer soars, finding new ways to build on top of itself. Where most other tracks I would describe as ‘horror’ tend to be complex and intentionally off-putting, “Silent Shout” finds a perfect balance between outright creepiness and accessibility.

174. Hot Chip – “Over and Over” (2006)
from the album The Warning

Key lyrics:
“Like a monkey with a miniature symbol
The joy of repetition really is in you”

Hot Chip’s “Over and Over” is an ode to the repetition that makes most dance music work, first casting itself among them before carving its own chaotic path. It’s not that “Over and Over” goes off the rails. Rather, it achieves a level of extravagance by using its basic structure as a launching point. The “Kissing Sexing” segment brings the song to a stomping halt, which explodes into a stunning guitar solo ramping the song up to an aggressive level. There are distinct segments, yet they flow so perfectly together.

Getting that chaotic breakdown to work first requires luring the listener in, and “Over and Over” starts as a bona fide mid-2000s indietronica jam. Hot Chip is essentially LCD Soundsystem’s more dance-oriented British cousin, similar but satisfying a different itch. The complexity is not in their lyrics but strewn across the instrumentation, stray details and small hooks making brief appearances to keep things exciting. The “Kissing Sexing” segment hits like a brick, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard’s typically beautiful vocals reduced to a robotic chant. More, each word they spell has one less letter, leaving an additional empty beat between each line that feels just off in the best way. This is a song that subverts itself over and over, an addictive experience simply asking you to have fun with it.

173. Depeche Mode – “Never Let Me Down Again” (1987)
from the album Music for the Masses

Key lyrics:
“I’m taking a ride with my best friend
I hope he never lets me down again”

Few synth-pop bands maintain such a brooding atmosphere as Depeche Mode, and their best songs rarely clue the listener in. This ambiguity creates an ominous atmosphere throughout “Never Let Me Down Again,” which could be about a flighty friend but might also focus on drug addiction. The lack of certainty is the point, the song contrasting the two experiences. Whatever the case, the music captures a sense of desperation.

“Never Let Me Down Again” catches my attention from its brief opening, an oscillating pair of notes growing fuller with every cycle. Duality is a key element to the song structure. The chorus is a subtle harmony, emphasizing the plural lyrics as one voice gets lost inside the other. A variation on the opening riff pops in between certain phrases, creating a subtly anxious rift. Despite this dense atmosphere, they maintain a firmly danceable beat.

The song reaches a heavenly high during the bridge, Dave Gahan begging to never be let down as the music carries him far above the earth. It’s the perfect payoff for such a nervously confrontational song. The narrator is finally putting his trust in this friend while the other voice promises a beautiful night. The song ends there, letting us ponder whether the friend remains present on the way down.

172. Slint – “Good Morning Captain” (1991)
from the album Spiderland

Key lyrics:
“I miss you”

Slint’s Spiderland is one of the original “post-rock” records, a poorly named genre which uses standard rock instruments in unusual ways. Though bands like Sigur Ros and Swans seem to have little in common on the surface, they are united by a borderline ambient usage of guitars. Whether being used for horror or serenity, the best post-rock songs are atmospheric slow-burners. “Good Morning Captain” captures the dark potential of the genre, guided by anxious strumming always teetering on the edge of relief. Slint deny us any easy payoff. Coming from a hardcore background, Slint play in a style that suggests an incoming burst of aggression. Instead, the familiar buildup cycles back on itself in a seemingly endless loop. Music is rarely this stress-inducing.

What I find so masterful about this song is that it occasionally roars, all while maintaining its ambience. As the guitars prepare to take off, the spoken word vocals pulls it back – the words here matter less than the delivery, which borders on inaudible below the instruments. “Good Morning Captain” is an expertly mixed track, the quieter elements keeping everything else subdued. This is all in service of one of the greatest payoffs in rock, a blistering shout allowing the flood of tension to be released.

171. The Velvet Underground – “Venus in Furs” (1967)
from the album The Velvet Underground and Nico

Key lyrics:
“Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart”

The Velvet Underground was a transgressive act in its time, only avoiding genuine controversy due to its initial obscurity. On an album full of loving odes to hard drugs and those who deal them, “Venus In Furs” is a rare track that maintains its shock value – so many artists have made drug ballads, but rarer are the tracks begging for masochistic ecstasy. Explicit sexual lyrics are no longer taboo, but Lou Reed manages to suggest something seedier than mere vulgarities. Even here, Lou Reed showcases his melancholy side. When not begging for the whip, he suggests a boredom and emptiness unlike anyone has experienced.

Though acting as obvious provocateurs, The Velvet Underground truly succeed here through the music itself. The beat is simple yet effective, plodding along to set a slow pace. The sound suggests something foreign, some secret sex den people travel continents to visit. The true standout is John Cale’s wailing electric viola – The Velvet Underground may have influenced a thousand bands, but this remains one of their unique traits. Few bands would dare to even try imitating John Cale’s masterful skills. Due to all these unusual instrumental choices, “Venus in Furs” barely shows it age after 50 years.

170. Bob Dylan – “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965)
from the album Bringing It All Back Home

Key lyrics:
“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows”

Many of my favorite Bob Dylan songs are sprawling epics. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is very much the opposite, a short piece where Dylan seemingly shoots off a hundred syllables per second. That rapid fire delivery, of course, means he says just as much in this song as any of his longer works. This borders on feeling like a prototypical rap piece. The 1960s were a chaotic time, and few songs captured those overwhelming elements with a matching cadence. Drugs, civil rights, police brutality; this is a song trying to cover every inch in as little time as possible. Having listened to this at least a hundred times, I still struggle to keep up with Dylan’s delivery – even before picking up an electric guitar, Dylan was already pushing the boundaries of folk music by causing sensory overload.

But even if you find yourself struggling to process one line as he hits you with two more, Dylan’s delivery is on point. His sing-song rhythm emphasizes his insane rhyme scheme. On first listen, you will likely pick up these stray words as slogans of unknown meaning. Yet it’s not like Bob Dylan is suggesting futility – “Subterranean Homesick Blues” feels like he’s having a lot of fun.

169. Johnny Cash – “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955)
from the albums Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! And At Folsom Prison

Key lyrics:
“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”

Johnny Cash excelled at myth building, and few songs established his image better than “Folsom Prison Blues.” His casual delivery really sells his outlaw persona. Taken alone, that famous line about shooting a man in Reno could be taken as over-the-top or trying too hard. But with his half-hearted intonation, it’s just another fact of his misguided life.

While originally recorded for his first album, “Folsom Prison Blues” really comes to life thirteen years later. Johnny Cash made a bold move by recording his first live album at the actual Folsom Prison, and this made an obvious opener. There’s something special about hearing those actually going through the Folsom Prison blues cheering along. Though Johnny Cash had been playing the outlaw from the start, this is where he proved the act.

The song itself is a staple of its era, a perfect mix of country and early rock and roll. The rhythm bounces with Cash’s unique strumming style; slow, but with force. Beyond the iconic Reno line, “Folsom Prison Blues” is a desperate lament about a life wasted. Like Hank Williams before him, Johnny Cash plays with Western imagery as a source of isolation. But where Williams crooned in universal terms, Johnny Cash hit a sweet spot by playing the sympathetic villain.

168. Nirvana – “Lithium” (1991)
from the album Nevermind

Key lyrics:
“I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ‘cause so are you”

Nirvana were open about the influence of the Pixies on their music, and “Lithium” is a clear example. This is one of the ultimate quiet-loud tracks, remaining just subdued enough to stand out among many that exploded into outright fury. Though “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will always stand as the biggest track off Nevermind, “Lithium” feels the most refined. It’s not because “Lithium” lacks their confrontational attitude, but that it’s channeled in a unique direction. The ‘loud’ burst suggests mania instead of anger. As such, the chorus comes off as disconcertingly celebratory. Something feels just off, but it’s easy to get lost in the simple chanting of ‘yeah, yeah!’

Though the quiet-loud dynamic was key to the alternative rock movement, it is clear many bands put more emphasis on the ‘loud’ half of the equation. After all, that burst of energy acted as an easy payoff. On “Lithium,” Nirvana made both halves equally enticing. The quieter verses are full of clever lines and contradictions, while the instrumentation is affecting enough that it could support a full song alone. Yet the thump of the bass drum adds a tinge of tension to set up the impending burst. In the excessiveness of the 90s rock scene, few bands had any reason to hold back. “Lithium” captures the best of its era, but its relative restraint granted it lasting distinction.

167. Aldous Harding – “The Barrel” (2019)
from the album Designer

Key lyrics:
“Show the ferret to the egg”

On its surface, “The Barrel” feels like the most unassuming song I am covering in this project. In 2019, it is hard to argue this quietly comforting folk song was breaking new ground. Though I have found myself returning to it over and over again these last couple years, expressing why I find it so alluring proves difficult. This is by design – though her tracks tend to be less sonically aggressive, Aldous Harding writes with the same impenetrable lyricism that defined much of Beck’s career. But where Beck tended toward a playful nature, there is something quietly eerie about the contrast here.

Aldous Harding’s voice is warm, the piano light as a feather. The baritone sax that accompanies her into the chorus matches that gentleness. A man joins her in harmony during the first chorus – the second time around turns a bit off-putting as a third voice chimes in. Aldous sings with a childlike timbre; man, woman, and child sing as one. Though the lyrics are indecipherable, the imagery conveyed feels just telling enough. While singing with an incomparable serenity, Harding’s words express deeper concern. With the lyrics seeming to float right outside my comprehension, I feel the urge to crack them open. And though I might never understand, I have been rewarded by recognizing how rare it is to stumble across such a tranquil song.

166. David Bowie – “Young Americans” (1975)
from the album Young Americans

Key lyrics:
“Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”

David Bowie was never afraid to step outside his comfort zone. “Young Americans” found him stepping into the world of soul music. Though this essentially amounted to a one-off in that genre, Bowie pulled it off with unexpected skill, as though he had been making soul music his entire life. “Young Americans” is a track bubbling with unbridled energy as Bowie observes a young girl living too fast. This is a portrait of America by a very British man, and the velocity of his delivery suggests he wants to cover every inch. More than any other track, “Young Americans” explores Bowie as an ordinary human.

The song hooks from the opening note, a drum rolling into a piano rolling into a bouncy soundscape dominated by the sax. Though the instrumentation starts mellow, Bowie’s vocals push ever higher. By the fourth verse, Bowie explodes with so much energy that he sounds fearful of leaving out a single detail, only to end with the music going silent behind him as he belts out with a powerful falsetto. The backing vocals are ever present, suggesting a massive scale. “Young Americans” sounds as sweeping as its lyrics suggest. And though the lyrics lament wasted youth, I cannot help feeling energized by Bowie’s passionate delivery.

165. Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972)
from the album Transformer

Key lyrics:
“Holly came from Miami, FLA
Hitchhiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs, and then he was a she”

What a difference a few years make. “Walk on the Wild Side” feels pointedly taboo, yet Lou Reed found his breakthrough hit by singing about the beautifully strange people he met at Warhol’s Factory. This contains some of his most provocative lines, from the now mundane mention of transgender people to prostitution and drugs. For those immune to that sort of shock, Lou Reed hits from the other direction with an already archaic use of ‘colored girls’ during the chorus. Lou Reed appeared on a quest to offend mainstream sensibilities and was rewarded with a fame he never desired.

So, what made “Walk on the Wild Side” click with mainstream audiences while The Velvet Underground failed to chart? It is largely thanks to the delivery. Where the best Velvet Underground songs matched their niche themes with experimental music, Lou Reed plays this song almost too casually. Nothing quite breaks taboos like a self-assured voice. Lou Reed isn’t truly aiming to shock; these are simply the people who surrounded him. There’s nothing particularly extreme about any of these subjects from someone who experiences them daily. They are simply facts of life. “Walk on the Wild Side” is not a transgressive song, but rather a reassuring invitation to anyone who has ever felt unwelcomed in society.

164. Big Thief – “Shark Smile” (2017)
from the album Capacity

Key lyrics:
“She said woo
Baby, take me
And I said woo
Baby, take me too”

Love is a complex, borderline indescribable emotion. It’s not that there are no words, but a literal explanation fails to capture the true meaning. Most artists turn to metaphors to capture a better sense. Big Thief subtly exploit that expectation with “Shark Smile.” While sharing the structure of a love song, an entirely different form of heartbreak is waiting at the end of this road. “Shark Smile” operates like a deconstruction of a Bruce Springsteen classic – two lovers flee a dead-end town with nothing but each other. As the song goes on, Adrianne Lenker captures the passion by referencing their increasing speed.

Taking after Springsteen’s Nebraska era, “Shark Smile” is a perfect homage to the Boss. The drums beat along with the same rolling energy, suggesting a steady sense of forward motion. But Lenker’s voice is fragile in a way very unlike Springsteen. The relatively gentle song takes a harsh turn during its second chorus. The electric guitar wails, overwhelming Lenker. The wailing continues into the next verse as Lenker’s voice grows more desperate. The illusion is shattered as the lyrics get a bit too visceral – the song has been mixing metaphors and literal imagery all along, as there is no way to interpret this fatal verse in a purely metaphorical sense.

The truly heartbreaking moment comes in the final chorus. Though the lines are simple, with Lenker telling her lover to ‘take me, too’, the meaning has changed. What was first a plea to escape together transforms into Lenker begging to die alongside this lover. Having lost three friends in separate car accidents all in the same year, Lenker grieved by penning a moving tragedy about sudden loss.

163. Burial – “Archangel” (2007)
from the album Untrue

Burial’s “Archangel” exists at the intersection of so many sounds. Though an early dubstep hit, it blurs together elements of ambient to create an unsettling atmosphere. The frantic beat unnervingly collides against a glacial wall of electronic despair, a choir lost like ghosts in a machine. The result is something anxiety-inducing. “Archangel” evolves like a slow eruption, the ambient elements shifting ever upward. Little effects give a corrupted quality, as if the recording is on the verge of disintegrating as it plays. This track successfully covers the two extremes of electronic, its ambient architecture playing unpredictably against a steadfast beat.

Alongside the tense drum pattern, “Archangel” is held together by stunning yet simple R&B samples. The lines are generic feel-good phrases, but distorted into desperation. The result is something like a lover begging their partner not to go, the music capturing their growing dread. There are plenty of electronic tracks exploring similar unease, but “Archangel” features an emotional density few songs manage. Burial says so much with nothing more than a handful of stock phrases and pitch modulation. There are plenty of songs with a similar vibe, but the overall production on “Archangel” has placed it in a league of its own.

162. Fleet Foxes – “White Winter Hymnal” (2008)
from the album Fleet Foxes

Key lyrics:
“And, Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow
Red as strawberries in the summertime”

After being an almost quintessential element of popular music during the rise of rock, the presence of harmonies faded over time. I am not certain of the cause, whether it be declining popularity or artists simply turning their attention elsewhere. Whatever the case, the late 2000s saw a minor explosion of bands prioritizing harmony, from the bizzaro world of Animal Collective to the straight-laced sound of Grizzly Bear. Fleet Foxes’ debut album remains the true standout of this era, fusing lovely harmonies with some of the densest folk music around. It was at once modern and archaic, lushly produced while suggesting Appalachian folk of a mythical variety.

“White Winter Hymnal” is a short burst which highlights all their best elements. The song begins with a truncated phrase repeated over and over, more voices piling in before the chorus is finally allowed to continue with perfect harmony. The lyrics consist of beautifully detailed imagery which prove difficult to decipher, creating an atmosphere both nostalgic and sad. Between the three repetitions of the chorus, the band erupts in non-lyrical harmonizing, a bombastic sound suggesting emotions too powerful to express with words. And then we reach the final chorus, the instrumentation fading away to let the voices alone carry us through the bittersweet ending. Despite its brief length, “White Winter Hymnal” suggests a majestic tale of love and loss.

161. Townes Van Zandt – “Pancho and Lefty” (1972)
from the album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt

Key lyrics:
“Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes”

Writing about popular music, there is an easy way out I typically try to avoid. Lacking the knowledge to properly discuss the instrumentation, it is tempting to shift focus to the lyrics and themes. The same gripe I have with amateur film critics treating movies like little more than narrative vessels tempts me in this other medium. Especially with my slight audio processing difficulties, I largely do not parse the lyrics until I already like the song – even mentioning the lyrics thus feels disingenuous. I say all this to preface the fact that some songs simply are about the lyrical content. Certain musicians, such as Townes Van Zandt, take after the bardic tradition. This is a man, his guitar, and a tale of two notorious figures.

“Pancho and Lefty” is a quintessential western track, one that has been covered numerous times by more famous artists. Yet Townes Van Zandt’s sparse renditions stick with me more than any other. These are performances I can imagine around a campfire on a cold desert night. His southern drawl lends more authenticity – this could be a song swiped from the Wild West itself. The lyrics are evocative, from “breath as hard as kerosene” to “the dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” Van Zandt has no need for additional bells and whistles – his words pack a dense punch which would render a broader production redundant, too precise. The simplicity gives an air of truth.

160. Chico Buarque – “Construção” (1971)
from the album Construção

“Construção” is a song I was not immediately drawn to – as someone who cannot speak Portuguese, a six minute epic focused around bitter political criticisms did not appear accessible. It was only when I was tackling my annual song list update that I returned, curious to see if something clicked. With a bad habit of sometimes treating music like background noise, my focus turned elsewhere quickly. But then that moment happened – the horns came in with a horrifying blast, and I literally jumped in my seat.

I had sadly failed to give this song proper attention in my previous listens, the relatively quiet opening turning to a cacophony of warring voices and aggressive symphonic elements. Bossa nova rhythms keep it moving forward, not with the lightness typically associated with the genre but like a maddening spiral. The insistent patter of the lyrics steals my attention, even as someone incapable of understanding. Each line repeats the same twelve syllable structure, turning frantic, almost terrifying, when Buarque’s lone voice is joined by a crowd. “Construção” is far from a pleasurable experience, but it is a masterclass in disparate elements coming together to create an altogether singular soundscape. This is as turbulent as music come, easily breaking past the language barrier.

159. The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations” (1966)
from the album Smiley Smile

Key lyrics:
“Close my eyes, she’s somehow closer now
Softly smile, I know she must be kind”

Leave it to The Beach Boys to make one of the most complex recordings of its era and coat it in such a summery and pleasant sound that the average listener could easily overlook its marvelous originality by being caught up in its pure sonic bliss. “Good Vibrations” is proof that experimental is not synonymous with inaccessible. Some truly successful experiments become so embedded in our culture that their avant-garde origins become lost to time. The whirring Electro-Theremin is perhaps the most iconic oddity, but the beating cello adds more subtle complexity. On a songwriting level, “Good Vibrations” is fragmentary, gliding through stray elements with ease. Though bright and bubbly throughout, this is an obvious precursor to more extreme ‘rhapsodic’ hits like “A Day in the Life” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The question, then, is what makes “Good Vibrations” such an easy listen – similar works draw attention to their transitions, whereas “Good Vibrations” maintains an unlikely cohesiveness. In large part, this is due to the harmonizing The Beach Boys perfected over their long career. The sudden changes in tempo and volume allow the band to show off their vocal work. Quiet moments are an excuse to build back up to full force – “Good Vibrations” is a song loaded with payoffs.

158. Sonic Youth – “Teen Age Riot” (1988)
from the album Daydream Nation

Key lyrics:
“It takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now”

“Teen Age Riot” exists in a weird space, the definitive track from a band who otherwise sound nothing like this. At the same time, it’s not exactly a typical alternative rock anthem thanks to its length and odd structure. The song begins with a hazy, sing-song intro, Kim Gordon throwing out vague yet demanding phrases. This stops after eighty seconds, only for a different sound to break through the silence. This second section carries the rest of the track – the intro almost exists as a distinct entity, but the burst away from that section helps generate the sense of velocity that makes this so enticing.

What makes “Teen Age Riot” so distinctive is the sense of noise rock underpinning everything. This song is outright sunny in its presentation, but the frenetic energy comes straight out of a harder genre. It’s as if Sonic Youth wrote one of their typically chaotic pieces and then redesigned it as a summer anthem. Most metal acts would never dare sound this cheery, while punk acts penning similar songs largely lack the technical drive to make something so complex. Sonic Youth redesigned their style for “Teen Age Riot,” showing even the most niche genre could be made accessible. As the intro track to one of the strongest and noisiest albums of the 1980s, “Teen Age Riot” was a perfect invitation – welcoming, but just complex enough to prepare an unassuming audience.

157. David Bowie – “Lazarus” (2015)
from the album Blackstar

Key lyrics:
“Look up here, I’m in heaven”

While there is a seemingly endless supply of songs about death, few are written by someone actually in the process of dying. Even among artists getting on in age, few are put in a position to recognize their final moments. Rarer are the artists who, in that fragile state, are still capable of writing a genuine hit, a song that reminds everyone why they were so beloved in the first place. Only days before his death, David Bowie did the impossible, a legacy act releasing a late career album one could easily argue as his finest work. “Lazarus” stands as the clearest acknowledgement of his impending fate.

David Bowie was a musical chameleon, and he dared to push new boundaries even on this final release. “Lazarus” shows shades of both jazz and gothic rock, starting as a gently brooding piece before Bowie works himself into an impassioned plea. He proudly declares he will be free, but there is enough tension there to show his fear. The song then winds down with an extended instrumental outro – Bowie is gone, but his music will live on. And though there is a hint of fear in Bowie’s voice, the music itself suggests a meditative trance. Instead of spending his final months in terror, Bowie took the time to reflect and pen a fond farewell, not letting the curtain fall until it was truly over.

156. The Knife – “Full of Fire” (2013)
from the album Shaking the Habitual

Key lyrics:
“Let’s talk about gender, baby
Let’s talk about you and me”

With Silent Shout, The Knife were already teetering on the edge of abrasive. Shaking the Habitual found them diving headfirst into cacophony. Even the most accessible tracks spun out of control with unusual time signatures and piercing screeches. If Silent Shout is songs of oppression, Shaking the Habitual is a necessary act of rebellion. This is a band lashing out against tradition, both musically and toward larger cultural monoliths. “Full of Fire” finds just the right balance, a nightmare on first listen which becomes strangely transcendental as you cave to its wild demands.

Where earlier Knife tracks attempted to meet the audience halfway, “Full of Fire” is an auditory assault. Karin Dreijer’s vocals are more distorted than ever before, made worse by gasps for breath and wordless wailing. A relentless cascade of noise weaves through every second of this nine minute terror. Yet The Knife maintain perfect control throughout – this is a danceable techno track. A techno track which seemed to emerge from the same liminal space as the boiler room in Nightmare on Elm Street, but a piece of electronic dance music nonetheless. Despite its intimidating nature, “Full of Fire” is ultimately an eye-opening experience. Just as the lyrics reflect upon the malleable nature of gender identity, the instrumentation suggests the only limits on music are self-imposed.

155. Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Take Five” (1959)
from the album Time Out

“Take Five” is the definition of cool. Built around a 5/4 time signature, the song seems to slither through its elements. The beginning is soft, percussive elements played quietly while the piano comes in louder, yet with muted force. Then that signature sax comes in, again louder than the other instruments. It bobs up and down, weaving an unforgettable melody. None of these elements demand your attention but are compelling enough to capture the ear, the perfect sort of easy listening. After this quiet opening, the sax briefly disappears and the drums really begin to roll. The Dave Brubeck Quartet are playing with volume, and that quiet opening patter has evolved into an explosive drum solo. Yet even that never quite takes off – “Take Five” maintains a subdued sound throughout, only teasing toward a grand finale.

This is a piece that, while saying nothing with words, paints a very specific image. “Take Five” is a song playing in a penthouse café overlooking a city in the dead of night. The relative quiet combined with its growing volume creates an unusual effect, calm yet always evolving. Instead of building toward some grand release, the Dave Brubeck Quartet are emphasizing every individual note.

154. The Cure – “Close to Me” (1985)
from the album The Head on the Door

Key lyrics:
“But if I had your faith
Then I could make it safe and clean”

“Close to Me” falls closer to the pop rock side of The Cure’s oeuvre, though something about it is just upsetting enough to fall in perfectly with their gothic imagery. The keyboards are peppy, the rhythm playful – on an instrumental level, this might be their lightest song. But even before the vocals begin, quiet panting pervades the song. When Robert Smith actually starts singing, he sounds desperately out of breath. It’s as though he has escaped a horrid nightmare, the music representing peace in his waking world as the terror persists. Whatever haunted his dreams still looms, and this waking peace is only a brief respite.

The unease is subtly reinforced by the music – though it is light, it never quite escapes its repetitive loop. Taken with the lyrics, the peppiness could easily be taken as manic anxiety – key to this working as both a pop hit and a slightly unnerving Cure song. As such, this works to reinforce my positive moods and also comfort me during stressful times. Through most of their career, The Cure only turned to pop when they could cleverly subvert it. “Close to Me” is minimal and catchy, yet the shadows linger just out of view.

153. James Brown – “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (1970)
from the album Sex Machine

Key lyrics:
“The way I like it, is the way it is
I got mine, don’t worry about his”

James Brown had been performing since the mid-50s, slowly but surely transforming his sound into the emerging funk genre. 1970 forced a new style – when his backing band walked out, he had to find new members, and their skillset was not quite the same. The result was something minimal yet provocative. Compare this to the earlier funk hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Where that song was dominated by a horn section, “Get Up” is all about the bass. The earlier sound was bombastic, while the instruments here feel more mischievous and sly. This slick sound would come to define the funk genre at large.

James Brown was a phenomenal performer, and that shines on this recording. The vocals are structured as a call and response with Bobby Byrd, the lyrics short phrases allowing Brown to jump all over. Where his earlier funk hits found the horns warring with him over the spotlight, the instrumentation here works purely as backup. This is not to knock those earlier classics; rather, all the elements of “Sex Machine” are uniquely orchestrated to put James Brown right at the center. James Brown is a musical legend, and this song alone is enough to showcase his raw style.

152. Funkadelic – “One Nation Under a Groove” (1978)
from the album One Nation Under a Groove

Key lyrics:
“Feet don’t fail me now”

Funkadelic(/Parliament) are a rare popular band that might be better described as a collective. With a dozen vocalists, their performances are a party in themselves. “One Nation Under a Groove” is all over the place in the best way possible. The song begins with several voices playing against each other, some singing in harmony while others dance in the spotlight. A lone voice leads much of the track, but it is the other voices warping around him that draw attention. The harmonies sometimes jump to the forefront to directly support the lead, other times serving purely as backing. A more jovial voice chimes in now and then, a rough contrast to the smooth lead. This defines the sense of unity at the heart of the song – disparate voices working to create something larger than life.

For such chaotic vocals, the instrumentation has to tie everything together. Much like “Sex Machine,” the funky bass guides the song but remains firmly in the background. While wild synth lines pop in during the silence, many of the instruments simply work to reinforce the stray vocals. The magic of “One Nation Under a Groove” is how all these elements come together as a singular vision.

151. !!! – “Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard (A True Story)” (2003)
from the album Louden Up Now

Key lyrics:
“So if you got hips, shake ‘em
And if you got fears, forsake ‘em
Giuliani’s got his rules but we ain’t no fools
Let’s break ‘em”

More than any hit by LCD Soundsystem or The Rapture, !!!’s “Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard” captures the spirit of the original dance-punk era. It kicks off with a bouncy rhythm before adding one of the sexiest basslines known to man. Though its nine minute length might seem astronomical, it proves to be a worthy epic, shifting between several movements. While packed with plenty of vocals, !!! are not afraid to go off with several instrumental breaks. This is all about getting a crowd on the dancefloor and finding new ways to push those limits. Horns burst onto the scene at key moments, while a section near the two minute mark turns almost transcendental as rapid guitar strumming overwhelms everything but the drumbeat.

The punk elements are just as essential. The lyrics are a bratty attack on the politics of the time, though they somehow caught a lucky break with Giuliani growing into an increasingly absurd figure. Nothing here feels particularly complex on the technical side, and common descents into atonal scatting add to a DIY aesthetic. This is a jam with a whole lot of attitude. The only thing missing is the type of club that would actually play this type of music.