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