150. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games” (2011)
from the album Born to Die
“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
“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
“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)
“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)
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
“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
“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
“Don’t punish me
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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)
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.