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