My Top 250 Songs Part 10 (#25-1)

25. David Bowie – “Life on Mars?” (1971)
from the album Hunky Dory

Key lyrics:
“But the film is a saddening bore
Because I wrote it ten times or more”

David Bowie was an alien among men. At least, that’s what he wanted us to believe, and works like “Life on Mars?” did a convincing job. Lyrically, this is an evisceration of popular culture, where cartoon idols are propped up and all art is a rehash. The title is a surrealist expression of a simple longing – to go to some distant place where everything is new and unexpected. But as his words hit hard, he also presents himself as if at a distance. His thoughts are filtered through a girl with mousy hair, and he uses her point of view to position himself as an objective observer. Yet nothing he speaks is in easy terms, his phrasing forcing us to contemplate his meaning.

His instrumentation plays out in a similar fashion, at once familiar yet twisting in unexpected ways. After kicking off like a piano ballad, “Life on Mars?” shoots into space during its chorus with the assistance of a string arrangement. The effect is heightened by Bowie’s deliberate timing. The verses feature a beat between every line, but the chorus begins to pair certain lines together without a break. By giving each line room to breathe until the chorus, a subtle sense of urgency takes over. This transforms his drawn-out delivery of the title line into a cathartic release.

David Bowie is a genre chameleon, and the fun of “Life on Mars?” is how much he positions himself like a traditional pop singer on a big stage while speaking an unfamiliar tongue before shooting skyward. The showmanship is the height of glam rock’s aspirations, while the arrangement is one of many pieces that solidified his status as the king of art rock. “Life on Mars?” sounds simple, but Bowie worked his magic to make every second burst with life.

24. Perfume Genius – “Queen” (2014)
from the album Too Bright

Key lyrics:
“No family is safe when I sashay”

To exist as a queer person is a political act. This should not be so, but the same is true of every minority population. The big difference is that queerness has no intrinsic surface indicators – but, bigots being bigots, there are certainly ideas. Perfume Genius harnesses these images on “Queen,” bringing to life an impossible amalgamation of contradictory stereotypes. At once, he is both a diseased fop writhing on the floor and an all-powerful indoctrinator roaming the streets to convert defenseless straight men. The chorus really says it all. “No family is safe when I sashay,” or any other act coded as queer. Because, at the heart of this, it is not our actions but our mere existence that threatens these people. This is about as angry as protest music gets, and Mike Hadreas is the perfect figure for the message, a slender man no reasonable person would find genuinely threatening – and yet…

The verses are guided by a harsh rock arrangement, a grungy guitar serving more ambience than riffs. This is all build-up to that central line, which is punctuated by a piercing, whirring synthesizer. Adrian Utley of Portishead supplies this element, and this harsh transition is the stuff of art pop legend. David Bowie played an androgynous alien while subtly dodging firm statements on his sexuality – on “Queen,” Hadreas plays the Bowie so many young queer people wished him to be. Yet he never retreads, instead updating Art Pop sensibilities for the modern era, morphing grunge, glam, and electronic into his own singular form. This is all in service of giving a voice to the most vulnerable among us, the queer people who cannot mask their identity, so often thrown under the bus by those trying not to appear “too gay.” Perfume Genius is a walking reminder of their power, and “Queen” is his finest anthem.

23. Smashing Pumpkins – “1979” (1995)
from the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Key lyrics:
“On a live wire right up off the street
You and I should meet”

It really all begins with this song. A faint memory before I really formed memories, shot back into my mind by its appearance on the soundtrack to a video game that otherwise left little impact on me. The fact this so effectively triggered my nostalgia while itself being about nostalgia is only a coincidence. In my earliest days of truly exploring popular music, Smashing Pumpkins were the band to beat, with their alternative sound working more as an endpoint. Alternative rock was an umbrella term bridging a ton of disparate styles, and Smashing Pumpkins were the great explorers of the era. Yet where most of their songs come off as a reflection of an earlier time, “1979” stands strong as Corgan’s vision of the future.

“1979” has an ethereal energy, one that makes its popular success surprising. There is a sense of endless looping between the rolling drums and the repeated sample of Corgan’s ghostly vocals. “1979” simply glides throughout its length, hitting upon a higher energy during its chorus but even then remaining at its steady pace. Against all odds, the cycling energy sustains itself. “1979” is alternative rock as a mood piece.

In the shadows of the grunge movement, “1979” also served a much-needed slice of hope. Billy Corgan tended to brood, yet even he managed to offer a burst of positivity here. Mainstream rock had rarely sounded this summery since the 60s. Yet, despite its popular success, I cannot think of a single other song that has captured a similar feel. Corgan went all out while putting together Mellon Collie, and though the album has a few misses, “1979” is a perfect testament for the need to keep exploring.

22. Franz Ferdinand – “Take Me Out” (2004)
from the album Franz Ferdinand

Key lyrics:
“I know I won’t be leaving here with you”

Outside of a few stray artists like The Black Keys, rock and roll saw its last big hurrah as a mainstream entity with the garage rock revival movement of the early 2000s. Franz Ferdinand snuck onto the scene with their own twisted take on post-punk, and “Take Me Out” became the unlikeliest of mega hits. This is a song drawing from a genre that never made it big in America that hit the Billboard Top 100 only to endure as an all-time classic. And it’s not like they succumbed to pop leanings – even seventeen years on, this resonates as a particularly odd piece, but an oddness that somehow added to its accessibility. The fact it is simultaneously about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and a relationship gone south is only the surface strangeness.

The big moment is obvious. At the 54-second mark, “Take Me Out” transitions into an entirely different song. After an intro that suggests a track only beginning to take off like all its forceful contemporaries, Franz Ferdinand do the opposite. This is dance-rock at a glacial pace, a song that wants you to feel every note. The low tempo makes a stomper, a jerky start-stop rhythm that is nonetheless danceable. This is all supported by a killer riff. The slow yet aggressive delivery made Franz Ferdinand out to be the most self-assured rock band in ages. The legend, of course, would fade – so many rock acts of the era would collapse under the expectations set by their debut. But the hype behind “Take Me Out” was never an overstatement – rock had rarely felt this fresh several decades after it began.

21. Missy Elliott – “Get Ur Freak On” (2001)
from the album Miss E… So Addictive

Key lyrics:
“Quiet! Hush your mouth
Silence when I spit it out
Hah-choo! In your face
Open your mouth, give you a taste”

Missy Elliott’s signature surrealism reached its zenith with “Get Ur Freak On.” The production here is out of this world – even 20 years on, it shows no sign of age. Timbaland picked up the beat while travelling through India, using a tumbi and tabla to help create a sound rarely seen in mainstream popular music. Stretching beyond bhangra, an ominous synthesizer rises during the chorus. Mix in Missy’s rapping skills, and you get something as totally unique as it is immediately effective.

Missy Elliott knew exactly what Timbaland had captured – the lyrics essentially find her bragging about the imminent success she has on her hands. Not to be outdone by the music, her own delivery blows it away. This is a song loaded with sudden stops. Missy absolutely commands the scene, interrupting the groove but never losing the rhythm. Few songs have used silence so effectively – Missy Elliott makes dance music as much as she makes hip hop, but she demands spectacle. To actually meaningfully make something out of the energy “Get Ur Freak On” presents requires true inspiration on the dancefloor.

Hidden beneath all this energy is an understated tension. The synthesizer never quite steals the scene, but its creeping presence makes itself felt. Meanwhile, during the third verse, the lead instrument slowly but surely transforms into something I can only compare to the horror strings of a Carpenter film. In an unusual twist for hip hop, “Get Ur Freak On” has an extended instrumental outro that just lets tension build. Missy Elliott typically leans toward the more playful side of hip hop, and while “Get Ur Freak On” was constructed in a similar vein, the final result is so extreme that little else compares.

20. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Just that something so good just can’t function no more”

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is almost impossible to separate from the events surrounding its creation and release. Ian Curtis had committed suicide a month before this single dropped, and the title resonated enough that his wife added it to his gravestone. If “Atmosphere” played at a higher level, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” finds Curtis stewing over his personal mistakes. This is a raw portrait of two lovers clinging onto hopelessness, a song shrouded in overwhelming despair.

But actually listening to the song, there seems to be something else at play. New Order did not come out of nowhere; Joy Division were already toying with synthesizers, and the glossy production here so perfectly captures a band in transition. In a way, it is tonally jarring – Ian Curtis’s deep voice does not pair well with this soft sound. But this dissonance is key to the enduring success. There is no sense of irony as would be found in plenty of synth-pop songs. Instead, the synthesizer on “Love Will Tear Us Apart” suggests a man trying to keep his head above water. Though we know Ian Curtis failed in this regard, it does a disservice to his art to paint it with a lens of inevitability.

When we fixate on the tragedy, we miss why so many people care in the first place – not many people got into Joy Division simply because they heard the lead singer killed himself. Songs like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are a perfect showcase for music as a form of limitless self-expression. A man can write about his failing marriage and form it into a cold dance track pushing the boundaries of genre expectations. A lot of us have experienced heartbreak, and though few of us take such an extreme path, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” still embodies a universal sense of slowly crumbling relationships.

19. Buddy Holly & The Crickets – “That’ll Be the Day” (1957)
from the album The “Chirping” Crickets

Key lyrics:
“You say you’re going to leave, you know it’s a lie
Because that’ll be the day when I die”

Where Elvis Presley helped bring rock and roll to the masses, Buddy Holly’s short career did just as much to push the genre in a new direction. It is not surprising to learn that the first song The Beatles recorded, back when they were The Quarrymen, was a cover of “That’ll Be the Day.” Holly’s guitar jangled, a sound that would define so much of popular rock from the 60s onward.

Buddy Holly played with a lighter edge than many of his contemporaries. After the electric opening, the guitar disappears through much of “That’ll Be the Day.” The actual sound that defines much of this track consists of harmonizing, a simple bass strum, and some soft percussion. The vocal portions may as well be a pop song. But Holly wields the guitar with precision, and its sudden reappearance during a short instrumental break halfway through is mesmerizing. Buddy Holly played up stark contrasts – his work was a direct reference point on Pixies’ Doolittle, and you can find a taste of their signature quiet-loud dynamic so many decades earlier here.

The arrangement on most early rock tracks are simple, but songs like “That’ll Be the Day” are proof that simple sometimes means better. The vocal sections effortlessly roll along, and the electrifying break is as effective today – the little punches from the drum near the end are the perfect icing. Dozens of major artists cite Holly as a direct influence, and it is easy to understand why. His little songs cut straight to the point – many artists could learn from his pointed brevity.

18. Phoebe Bridgers – “I Know the End” (2020)
from the album Punisher

Key lyrics:
“I’m always pushing you away from me
But you come back with gravity”

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is a song I always wished I could love as much as I respect. The idea of this drawn out, quiet epic exploding into a moment of cathartic release is a killer idea, but it does not stick the landing for me. The payoff weighs heavier than the slow build. Led Zeppelin excelled at hard rock, but something about the middle section collapses under the weight for me. Someone out there had to be able to do better.

While listening through Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher album for the first time last year, “I Know the End” erupted as an unexpected but immediate answer. Where Led Zeppelin were hard rockers momentarily restraining themselves, Phoebe Bridgers is a quiet folk artist pushed to a boiling point. When “I Know the End” begins, there is no inherent anticipation for more – Bridgers could coast off that initial energy to an equally quiet endpoint. But then we reach the second section and the pace picks up while strings join the previously sparse arrangement. Soon, Sufjan Stevens-style horns set us on a point of no return. Where I find the middle sequence of “Stairway to Heaven” to be a chore, the middle here is perfection. And, against all odds, this seemingly meek folk singer closes out with an adrenaline-fueled crescendo of absolute terror.

Despite being recorded earlier, “I Know the End” serves as a perfect encapsulation of the nightmare that was 2020. After a personal introduction, stark descriptions of the American South set up an apocalyptic tone – she remarks upon a billboard reading “The End is Near” before stating it has already arrived. In the year of COVID-19, this was a wounding blow, and that cathartic scream which closes the song out is a feeling everyone could understand.

17. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best” (2015)
from the album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Key lyrics:
“I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny”

“Avant Gardener” was among the more surprising breakthrough hits of the 2010s, a piece that felt as much like a ramble as a song. Barnett made the structure adapt to her words, a bold choice that paid off. “Pedestrian at Best” finds her playing with a bit more structure, a genuine rock hit that could have easily been pulled from the height of the grunge movement. One might expect her unique lyricism and delivery to play a smaller part with such an urgent sound, but her familiar rambling only adds a punch.

Rock lyrics are rarely this densely packed. Picking a key line for this one was difficult – how to choose one when literally every line is exceptional? She pairs the distorted guitars with anxiety-ridden self-abasement, her exhausted pleas matched perfectly with breathless delivery. This might actually be a genuine panic attack set to music. Though loaded with complex verses, the true standout is the chorus. Barnett holds back on her more intricate wordplay to get in several straightforward jabs. The payoff is contained in the final word, ‘funny’ drawn out for several seconds as she oscillates up and down. Like “Avant Gardener,” every layer of this song flows in bizarre yet perfect harmony – it just happens to feature a central riff rock fans might drool over.

An unexpected trend of the last few years involved seeing several of my favorite women in indie music burst forth with previously unseen energy. “Seventeen,” “I Know the End,” and “Pedestrian at Best” are only the peak. I will occasionally remark upon rock dying as a mainstream entity, but that has only given room for new voices to revitalize certain sounds with unexpected twists. “Pedestrian at Best” is all the fun of garage rock with rapid-fire delivery that should even impress Bob Dylan.

16. The Smiths – “This Charming Man” (1983)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
This man said ‘it’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care’”

Openly queer songs in the popular sphere were uncommon until the last decade or so. “This Charming Man” is one of the rare early hits with only marginal room for debate over its subject matter – I don’t understand how anyone can read this as anything but an older man trying to convince a younger man to cancel his wedding and get with him, but people will go to great lengths to deny queer themes unless spoken in the most explicit terms. Morrissey, of course, is not one to make things straightforward. With his boyish yet elevated vocals, he sings not as if paired with a jangle pop sound but like a crooner from some non-specific era. “This Charming Man” captured a wide audience despite its controversial subject matter in part due to its otherworldly feel. The language on display has more in common with early 20th century literature than popular music, providing a safe distance.

The rest of the band firmly grounds this in the 80s. The rhythm section adds an infectiously danceable beat. Johnny Marr’s opening guitar is a wondrous hook, and he maintains an impossibly bouncy melody throughout. The instrumentation alone would make a perfect update on The Beatles’ jangly sound, but Morrissey’s frankly bizarre stylings add such a unique edge. Though The Smiths would release several albums after this breakthrough single, nothing quite captured the exaggerated vocals on display – we might not have been able to take the band seriously if Morrissey insisted on being this extra all of the time, but it makes for one enduring classic. And as much as I can’t stand Morrissey now, it would be wrong to deny the comfort I found in this song during my own coming out process.

15. Kate Bush – “Wuthering Heights” (1978)
from the album The Kick Inside

Key lyrics:
“Heathcliff, it’s me Cathy
I’ve come home, I’m so cold
Let me in-a-your window”

Nick Drake, John Cale, Vashti Bunyan – there are many artists I love for their knack to make songs which sound pulled from an alternate history. I get a similar feeling from Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” but I realize there is no specific era it invokes. This is something completely of its time, art pop at its peak of pure openness. The instrumentation bobs along, a dense wall of sound like little before or since. An epic guitar solo near the end only adds to the strangeness – what, exactly, was Bush trying to accomplish?

Nevertheless, “Wuthering Heights” topped the charts for four weeks in Britain. An easy explanation is it asks to be analyzed – it’s difficult to hear this song for the first time and not want to play it back to try and figure it out. Kate Bush’s piercing soprano conjures a forest spirit, but it is her unusual cadence that really lingers. Her lyrics are practically indecipherable as she pauses mid-statement and warbles through half the words. The colossal soundscape and poignant piano suggests a greater meaning even as you fail to parse her message.

Basically, the appeal of “Wuthering Heights” is similar to a surrealist film. You know there must be some meaning buried beneath the odd layers, and even once you cave and look up the lyrics, another mystery appears. What inspired Kate Bush to deliver these lines in such an impenetrable way? This is an eternal enigma, but the inherent intrigue of such an unusual piece has caused “Wuthering Heights” to grow on me even as I remain completely baffled. Whatever Bush’s reasons, the end result was a work of singular beauty.

14. The Who – “My Generation” (1965)
from the album My Generation

Key lyrics:
“I hope I die before I get old”

The Rolling Stones might have been sold as the bad boys of rock, but The Who really pushed rock and roll to a place of rebellion. Youthful angst had been a theme in popular music since the beginning, but The Who played up a punk aesthetic long before the idea of punk had formed. “My Generation” is a middle finger to the establishment – the fact Roger Daltry stutters over the ‘f’ in “why don’t you all f-fade away” does not read as coincidental. Even as The Who’s generation became the very establishment they once rebelled against, “My Generation” has passed down as an ageless anthem.

The Who played harder than their contemporaries. “My Generation” is a messy track, full of sudden stops and explosive drum fills. You can hear the birth of hard rock in that chaotic finale, harsh guitar chords mixed with Keith Moon’s forceful drum roll. This is the connective tissue between rock as a popular form and those who would eventually rebel against soft sounds. Yet it endures beyond its cultural relevance through the sheer amount of fun on display. The stuttered lyrics make a perfect karaoke jam, and the call and response chorus form an easy crowd pleaser. The groovy bassline adds enough structure for dancing, especially through a shotgun blast of short solos in the middle.

The appeal of “My Generation” is simple – this is proto-punk a decade out that hits harder than most acts that followed. The 1960s were a transformative era for popular art, and few songs signaled things to come as clearly as this one. The snide lyrics add just the right dose for eternal relevance.

13. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids” (2012)
from the album Channel Orange

Key lyrics:
“But your love ain’t free no more”

Contemporary R&B is rarely associated with sweeping epics, so “Pyramids” resonated on a new level immediately. This ten-minute journey takes us from ancient Egypt through an electronic soundscape to the dirty clubs of the modern day. Frank Ocean tells a parallel story of two women named Cleopatra, one a queen and the other a prostitute. He uses everything at his disposal to draw both parallels and distinctions, from a change in vocal delivery to the overarching sound. As much as the lyrics journey through time and space, “Pyramids” feels like a full tour of pop, R&B, and so much else – a little bit of everything played exceptionally well. The impossible genius is that he segues so subtly that all these stray ideas truly blend together; it’s difficult to take “Pyramids” in as pieces instead of a whole.

Part of what sells this monolithic piece is Ocean’s chill demeanor. While tackling something truly epic, he sits back and lets the music wash over him. No matter where this song journeys, he’s cool and in control. The language of the first half puts him at a distance, only for him to be drawn further into the picture by cruder lines. Ominous electronic bits suggest the crushing nature of our society – does the narrator have power over his own story? At the end of the final verse, Ocean loses his cool and laments, as though he has no understanding of how he ended up here. We listeners might be at just as much of a loss once the track closes, but that is a testament to Ocean’s brilliant, ever-changing yet always evocative structure.

12. The Knife – “Heartbeats” (2002)
from the album Deep Cuts

Key lyrics:
“To call for hands of above to lean on
Wouldn’t be good enough for me”

When I was a closeted teenager without any romantic experience, I once imagined “Heartbeats” was what love would feel like. After paying closer attention to the lyrics and delivery, I picked up on another layer, one of melancholy and uncertainty. I adjusted my naïve expectations, realizing like so many synth-pop songs that this one must be playing with a certain level of understated irony. It was only through my years of personal experience that I realized my initial reading was closer to the truth – that to fall in love is to likely set yourself up for pain, but the journey outweighs the endpoint.

The fact such a resonant song comes from The Knife is the shocking part. Their sound would increasingly evolve toward the aggressive and atmospheric, so something this serene seems impossible. The truth of their career is they knew how to manipulate the synthesizer to inspire extreme human emotions, and though they eventually specialized in panic and desperation, they knew just as well how to generate a sense of bittersweet nostalgia.

The clapping percussion breathes immediate life and the central synth-line rides that energy like a wave. Karin Dreijer’s delivery is filled to the brim with mixed emotions. They have to completely stretch the final syllable of the chorus to force a slant rhyme, but does it ever work. The synthesizer is nearly as dizzying as their later works in its high oscillations, but here it is used for good, a positive imitation of the intrigue that makes us fall for someone in the first place. “Heartbeats” is all about falling in love at first sight and then realizing something did not work out, but still celebrating it happening in the first place.

11. LCD Soundsystem – “Losing My Edge” (2002)
non-album single, later featured on LCD Soundsystem

Key lyrics:
“I’m losing my edge
To better-looking people
With better ideas and more talent
And they’re actually really, really nice”

LCD Soundsystem’s debut single feels as much a manifesto as a song. Before he was making his own music, James Murphy would like you to know he was the coolest DJ to ever rock New York City. He is here to set the record straight – that he is the reason Daft Punk is cool, that he in fact played a part in Suicide and was too good for Captain Beefheart – please, ignore the fact he was born after that band formed. Murphy is at the center of everything, but some other DJs came along and started playing the same songs. Murphy would not let that slide and decided to create his own musical diatribe.

Of course, this is all very tongue-in-cheek. James Murphy plays an old man shouting at the youngsters who dare to act like they get the music he grew up with, as if it somehow belonged to him. All of us music aficionados know that one person who insists their knowledge is more valuable than everyone else’s because they were ‘there,’ and Murphy loops it through several in-jokes. Though he begrudges the younger generation for the ease they have in connecting musical dots in the Internet era, the outro is as much an embracement – if we live in a world where anyone can pirate (and now stream) any band at any time, why complain when you can convince people to check out all your favorite bands? This may sound like a snide track at first, but once you work out all the references and realize it’s a giant string of impossible scenarios, it’s a perfect work of self-deprecating humor.

10. New Order – “Blue Monday” (1983)
non-album single, included on certain editions of Power, Corruption, & Lies

Key lyrics:
“But if it wasn’t for your misfortune
I’d be a heavenly person today”

Deciding to kick a song off with another completely different song is a bold choice – “Blue Monday” does not transition between its parts as much as it stutters and kicks over. This works because both sequences are distinctly oppressive, the first guided by a high velocity drum pattern. The connective tissue grinds everything to a halt, switching the drumbeat to a more deliberate pace. With this new beat, New Order take the initial synth-line and rework it into the bassline. “Blue Monday” does not abandon its distinct intro as much as it cannibalizes each element for a different purpose.

Beyond its structural ingenuity, the cohesion of ideas throughout the central sequence is mesmerizing. Bernard Sumner sounds completely unlike himself here, pointedly monotonous and with a deeper pitch. Synthetic backing vocals occasionally hum like an angelic choir. An instrumental break following the first verse ends in a chaotic flurry, first taking off like a jet plane and then a jackhammer before stuttering, as if threatening to again reset the beat. “Blue Monday” is as ominous as it is danceable, but not in the way Joy Division worked – there is no dissonance between message and music. Part of this is the emotion on display, turning to anger instead of sadness. This is the musical equivalent of blowing off steam, which is underutilized in dance music despite being an emotion that gets people off their feet.

“Blue Monday” is the moment that captured New Order transitioning into the ultimate synth-pop band. There is no need for irony here, a band in complete control of their sound no matter the instrument. The dire atmosphere pulsing through this song is untouchable – accomplishing this with such high energy is truly astounding, showcasing dance music with no emotional limit.

9. The Breeders – “Cannonball” (1993)
from the album Last Splash

Key lyrics:
“I’ll be your whatever you want
The bong in this reggae song”

After the Pixies disbanded, Kim Deal focused more attention on her side project. “Cannonball” is not so much a revolutionary track as it is a summation of its era. In a way, it feels like Deal trying to one-up the chaos that defined the Pixies – in one song, she rotates through nearly as many ideas as Doolittle in its entirety. Yet this is in no way a retread. The Pixies had rarely sounded this summery and upbeat.

“Cannonball” takes a full minute to truly take off, first starting with a twenty-second distorted harmony. This is followed by a distinct drum pattern played against the cymbal stand which only loops twice. This is then followed by the bass, which similarly loops twice with no other sound present. Finally, a drum beat is added with nothing else being removed. Clearly, these false starts were not enough, so they add in a brief drum break before the wobbly guitar finally joins. And then another guitar. And then a piercing whistle. Finally, the vocals start, but that is no sign “Cannonball” has truly found its footing – it refuses to ever truly settle. After a single verse that pretends to signal a traditional song, Deal bursts into a chorus so distorted to be unintelligible. The second verse ends in a notable pause. By the end, “Cannonball” has established its own internal logic, but it remains distinctly odd as a listener.

As bassist for the Pixies, Kim Deal learned how rhythm can tie together even the most eclectic sounds. No matter how freeform “Cannonball” gets, that signature bassline guarantees an accessible groove. The carefree chaos on display here feels so emblematically X-treme – this may not be the biggest alt rock song, but it might just be the most alt rock song.

8. Blur – “Girls & Boys” (1994)
from the album Parklife

Key lyrics:
“Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they’re girls, who do girls like they’re boys
Always should be someone you really love”

When contemplating “Girls & Boys,” it is hard to focus on anything other than that chorus. After all, the song eventually abandons the verse-chorus structure entirely only to repeat those words over and over until they blur into a meaningless void. Is it a cry of joyous hedonism or manic desperation? Whatever the meaning, it’s a hook that hits with as much force as the best house loop. As Damon Albarn churns through it, backing vocalists chime in any time he says ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ with the emphasis of drunken clubbers who can barely keep up. Nine simple words make up an impossible configuration, and the insistence that it ‘always should be someone you really love’ only makes it more confounding. This whole song could be read as mind-numbingly vapid if it was not so pointedly disorienting – Blur are absolutely playing us for fools from every possible angle.

The instrumentation feels equally indecisive. “Girls & Boys” shows shades of synthpop and alternative rock, disco and punk. This is the true genius that leaves the listener mesmerized enough to endure the lyrical nonsense. “Girls & Boys” sits at an intersection between so many ideas that it is in equal parts familiar and boundary-defying. The opening synthesizers bubble and pop, and a distorted guitar is merely added on top to transition toward the first chorus. Droning like a wind tunnel in reverse casts uncertainty over the whole affair. To keep things interesting, the final chorus section drops out all but the electronic blips for the first cycle, adding more instruments back in with each repetition. As Albarn sneers his way through the entire song, one might suspect he is only aiming to annoy us. Nevertheless, this is dance-pop perfected.

7. Television – “Marquee Moon” (1977)
from the album Marquee Moon

Key lyrics:
“I recall
Lightning struck itself”

Television was making post-punk while punk was still in its infancy. “Marquee Moon” starts off easily enough, not reaching far outside the traditional rock structure. But even in its simple beginning, two guitars play off each other. Both evoke a sense of contemplation, one brooding and the other urgent. With the bass joining in, a syncopated cycle kicks off. Even with four instruments and vocals, there is a persistent sense of silent space beneath it all. “Marquee Moon” is floating somewhere in the sky, always visible but at a distance.

The chorus truly takes off like a rocket into space, but even more effective is when Television quietly drifts away from this explosive moment. The third verse leads into the big moment – after four and a half minutes of playing a familiar if complex rock track, the song transitions into a guitar solo to end all guitar solos. For five full minutes, Tom Verlaine weaves through an impossibly high space, only climbing higher when it seems he has reached a breaking point. Halfway through, the guitar slows down like it is taking a victory lap, but then the drums help kick it back toward the stars for one last hurrah. In a way, finding this track as I started getting into music ruined my appreciation for guitar-driven rock. For me, nothing has compared to this solo.

Part of what makes “Marquee Moon” so compelling is the pristine sound quality. Without distortion and at these high tones, Television play the electric guitar as if it is something of simple beauty. To have the epic solo go out not with a bang but a gentle gleam sets this apart from so many artists happy to settle for the exact same definition of cool.

6. Patti Smith – “Gloria” (1975)
from the album Horses

Key lyrics:
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”

Punk became a different beast in the years that followed Patti Smith’s classic album, but no single line quite captures the punk ethos like the opening line of “Gloria.” The iconoclasm does not stop there as Smith transforms Them’s classic rock song into a lesbian anthem. Patti Smith sneers like the brattiest punk; her music just happens to play with a bit more complexity, to its benefit.

“Gloria” starts at a slow tempo, rolling along like a snowball until it bursts into the classic chorus. Along the way, Smith shows off her dirty poetic imagery as she falls for a girl she sees ‘humping on a parking meter.’ She details her successful seduction, only to finally ask her name after Smith has already ‘made her mine.’ The theme is as much sheer provocation as it is a declaration of punk as an open space for outsiders. As Smith hits upon the original tune, she has transformed it into something truly revelatory. Van Morrison’s original delivery is somewhat lascivious, yet this more explicitly sexual take turns the spelling of Gloria’s name into a celebration.

So many artists have shied away while covering love songs about the same gender – Patti Smith chose to embrace the idea and then some. Smith herself may not be queer, but I cannot overstate the impact the opening line had on me. If being gay is enough to send me straight to hell – well, I might as well have as much fun as I can here on Earth. I may not actually be that hedonistic, but there is an unusual comfort in the idea. Patti Smith took a classic, made it self-affirming and queer, and then rocked even harder.

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

Key lyrics:
“But just saying it could even make it happen”

When starting this project, I had not planned for it to take over three months. It was intended to be a brief break while suffering from writer’s block while attempting to start my next novel. Luckily, in that time, a few new ideas have formed, all sharing the same world but able to stand alone from my previous manuscript. The opening line of this song oozes with orchestrated personal relevance – “Cloudbusting” inspired me to name part of my fantasy world after Wilhelm Reich’s estate.

The influence does not stop there, but I hope not to waste this space with the details of a (hopefully only currently) unpublished novel. What matters here is that some songs conjure up ideas of another time and place, and this song resonated with me to the point that I have literally created a universe around the feelings it sends me. As an aspiring author, “Cloudbusting” stands alone for me as a direct influence in musical form.

The central structure of “Cloudbusting” might be best described as a march driven by cellos and layered with other strings. A sense of urgency closes in as, in typical Bush fashion, the music continuously builds before shifting into a dizzying climax. It never quite lifts off from its steady pace, but it has no need. Bush floats above it all, her naively hopeful chorus mixing with the strings to make a wondrously bittersweet mood piece. “Cloudbusting” leaves me longing for some other world. The ingenuity of the track is in its inspiration, a biography by Peter Reich. Bush perfectly captures the magic of a child looking with wonder at their father as the government rips him away. Wilhelm Reich was not a good person, but Bush paints a fantastic world where his outlandish pseudoscience might have been true – where just saying it could even make it happen.

4. Grimes – “Oblivion” (2012)
from the album Visions

Key lyrics:
“‘Cause when you’re runnin’ by yourself
It’s hard to find someone to hold your hand”

Before she got involved with the second richest man on Earth, Grimes played a convincing part as the most vulnerable pop artist in ages – yet she always fought back in equal measure. “Oblivion” dizzyingly tackles a time she had been assaulted. Making the most of synth-pop’s knack for irony and dissonance, she sings as light as a feather over a whimsically aggressive synth-line. Her voice frequently doubles up on itself, creating the sense of a magical being, like a woodland nymph pondering why anyone would choose to harm something so beautiful.

The key to “Oblivion” is in its back half, when a second synth-line joins in and completely flips the script. What was once whimsical turns sinister, twisting into something best described as nightmarish carnival music. As much as it bubbles like a carousel tune, there is also an edge of synthesized voices humming along that can be genuinely discomforting. Throughout this back half, Grimes repeats a single line over and over, “see you on a dark night.” This at first reads as the lasting impact of her experience – even as she sleeps safe in bed, her attacker always threatens to interrupt her dreams. But as the music fades to just that second synth-line, a new meaning takes hold. The closing section feels like an uneasy revenge tune, a burst of self-empowerment.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the whole of “Oblivion” is straight-up cool. This is synth-pop as an intimidation tactic, a seemingly nonsensical combination on paper. These synth-lines are as good as it gets, and the contrast with her voice creates something unlike anything else. Dancing along never feels like it is at the expense of its subject matter – “Oblivion” is a taunt, showing Grimes could move on and grow something beautiful out of her pain.

3. Bruce Springsteen – “Born to Run” (1975)
from the album Born to Run

Key lyrics:
“I want to know if love is wild, babe
I want to know if love is real”

A friend of mine once described “Born to Run” as sounding like unicorns galloping through a field. I think he meant this as a putdown, that the keyboard here suggests something all too precious. I think it is an apt description but from the opposite angle – few truly masculine presences in music have embraced such unabashed displays of hope. Part of this is that Springsteen paints such an intimate picture through his lyrics – hope is part of the picture, so we can question the naïve optimism of his narrator. It’s not so much trying to convince us but rather to capture the spirit of a young man dreaming of leaving his home behind. We don’t have to believe he will succeed – we just need to believe he believes in himself.

“Born to Run” captures a young artist going all in on what makes him unique – this is a song that could have broken Springsteen as much as it made him a superstar. It rockets forward with inimitable power – though Springsteen returns to a similar sound throughout his career, it is never at this velocity. Clarence Clemons takes center stage with the coolest sax solo to hit the charts, while a keyboard and glockenspiel add a sense of starry-eyed wonder. Springsteen eyes a bigger picture than rock and roll while perfectly retaining the energy.

Among my generation, Springsteen seems to be treated like the epitome of dad rock cheese – “Born in the USA” being consistently misunderstood in the popular consciousness certainly did not help matters. But where I also once saw something cloyingly sentimental, I now recognize Springsteen as a strikingly earnest figure. “Born to Run” is a work of unabashed wonder. My teenage self might be embarrassed to learn this now ranks as an all-time favorite, but sometimes I need a quick dose of positive energy.

2. The Velvet Underground – “Heroin” (1967)
from the album The Velvet Underground and Nico

Key lyrics:
“Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life”

The first time I heard “Heroin,” John Cale’s wailing electric viola literally gave me a headache. Which is to say, I immediately fell in love and never looked back, an eternal fixture of my top two songs since I made my very first list a decade back. The appeal is in no way straightforward as I claim of so many of my other favorite songs – on an album full of proto-whatever, “Heroin” remains the one song without significant connective tissue to music at large. Every element is so committed to supporting this sole idea that nothing could be taken or expanded upon. This exists at the forefront of experimental rock while shooting past the negative implications to land safely in the art rock zone – no matter how hard this song goes, it maintains a strange accessibility.

“Heroin” finds four instruments and the human voice in perfect discord. The two guitars generate an introspective backbone while Moe Tucker’s drumming starts with a low energy pattern. At first, Cale’s viola joins to merely drone in the backbone, Tucker’s drumming picking up speed. “Heroin” is marked by crescendos, in which the drums threaten to skitter off while the viola begins to sear. Lou Reed delivers a quiet certitude, musing over the chaotic state of the world and citing heroin as the easy escape. Cale’s viola is the drug itself, Tucker’s frantic drumming the rush. By the final crescendo, things truly go off the rails – Moe Tucker momentarily stops drumming, so overwhelmed by the chaos. The viola transitions into a wailing monstrosity, yet Reed’s certain voice ties everything together. This is a song so ahead of its time that it only dates itself through a Vietnam reference. “Heroin” may not be pleasant, but it exists as a riveting experience of music without limits.

1. LCD Soundsystem – “All My Friends” (2007)
from the album Sound of Silver

Key lyrics:
“I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision
For another five years of life”

At the heart of “All My Friends” is an insistent piano loop, a single chord which occasionally breaks itself in two in a frantic oscillation. For the first thirty-five seconds, the piano plays alone, drilling through your skull – like “Heroin,” the first time I heard this song, I ended up with a headache. The piano endures for the entire length of this epic song, perhaps picking up energy but never shifting from that loop. This is an instrument with more thematic than melodic purpose – in a song longing for familiar comforts, it serves as a piece of unattainable and overwhelming nostalgia. To capture the conflicting emotions, the central representation of desire cannot itself be changed – instead, LCD Soundsystem modify the space around this almost tumorous loop, shifting its meaning through contextualization instead of chord changes.

To make such repetitive cycles work is a central trick in electronic music, but LCD Soundsystem choose to otherwise play this with rock instrumentation. A drum patter and bass translate the central energy to a dance rhythm, while the guitar makes a delayed appearance and infrequently bursts forward with its own comparatively subdued longing. By the end, the elements meet on equal ground, the piano one part of a massive whole. The longing remains, but with so much more clarity.

James Murphy’s lyricism really drives it home. Few rock songs have painted such a convincing picture of growing up. In a genre once dominated by youth culture, Murphy takes a moment to play the old man in the room. Without missing a beat, he leaps from vowing to live a life without regret and then lamenting all the relationships he has neglected. The fact such a reflective song clicked with me when I was merely sixteen feels unlikely, but Murphy speaks to an eternal cycle – is the end of high school not the dawning of these realizations, that so many of these people you once knew will soon become nothing more than distant memories? “All My Friends” has comforted me in my most lonely days, a lesson to never take my social circles for granted. James Murphy and company took a single discordant piano note and infused it with endless emotional resonance.

My Top 250 Songs Part 9 (#50-26)

50. LCD Soundsystem – “Someone Great” (2007)
from the album Sound of Silver

Key lyrics:
“And it keeps coming and it keeps coming
And it keeps coming and it keeps coming
And it keeps coming and it keeps coming
And it keeps coming ‘til the day it stops”

Of the many songs about death, few capture the initial numbness as well as “Someone Great.” Though ostensibly a synth-pop track, the opening synth-line here exists more to drone than to bounce. It plays somewhere between a warning signal and a phone call you are trying to ignore. Another synth intrudes, whirring up and down, fading in and out like a dawning horror. An introspective bass soon follows, with the actual lead sound taking over a minute to appear. This slow build intro covers every inch of coping short of acceptance before James Murphy says a single word. This is a soundscape many artists could learn from, the coldest electronic sounds representing the rawest human emotions.

And that is only the intro. James Murphy’s lyrics and delivery cover the same expansive ground, shuffling through the minor details after hearing the news. The weather fails to match the mood, morning coffee leaves him empty. Murphy appears to have been so shaken up that he can rarely confront the subject directly, turning a rather specific relationship into a universal lament. Amidst the dense instrumentation, a glockenspiel underlines his every syllable. This lone acoustic instrument floats apart from the others, a quiet ray of hope.

“Someone Great” reaches its high points when Murphy twice loses his typically verbose tongue. After the third verse, he can do nothing but remark upon the crashing waves of realization. “It keeps coming, and it keeps coming,” little reminders of what this person meant always striking at unexpected times. By the end, he seems to find acceptance but still lacks the words. What is there to say when someone great is gone? Life goes on, but there will always be this droning void where a person once stood.

49. The Beach Boys – “Surf’s Up” (1971)
from the album Surf’s Up

Key lyrics:
“The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now”

“Surf’s Up” is among the most effective titles I know, painting this track as The Beach Boys’ statement of purpose when the lyrics themselves are too dense to interpret. No matter how many boundaries they pushed on even their most radio-friendly hits, their origins as a carefree surf rock band would always hang over them. “Surf’s Up” lives in an opera house at risk of a tidal wave; how far must a band go to change their popular image? The phrase plays on so many levels, from a mocking callback to a lament. The surf is up, meaning it is over.

Where many of their classics around this era play with a constant soundscape, “Surf’s Up” maintains a sparse arrangement. Like “Good Vibrations,” this shifts between several distinct movements, but “Surf’s Up” plays to the most extreme of their baroque sensibilities. An extended middle section consists of nothing but a piano and voice. This is the sound of a popular band shedding their image entirely to stew in their own artistic notions. A constant shift in key leaves even the quiet moments unpredictable. For this one track, The Beach Boys have truly left their popular audiences behind.

But then we reach the finale, which expands into one of their strongest harmonic arrangements. They know what their audiences want, and they know what works. “Surf’s Up” captures The Beach Boys as introspective masters. Leaving the harmonizing for an explosive finale may have sabotaged their chance at chart success, but it stands fifty years later as their boldest statement.

48. Hercules and Love Affair – “Blind” (2008)
from the album Hercules and Love Affair

Key lyrics:
“I wish the stars could shine now
For they are closer, they are near”

Despite being part of the disco revival movement, “Blind” hits upon the true undercurrent of the original era that was largely overlooked once the genre made waves. The decline of disco has been treated as a celebratory act, as if underdog rock and roll toppled an unexpected giant. Really, the disco scene had been a safe haven for minorities, particularly queer people in a time when they had few others. Disco turning into the next big fad only to be brutally tossed aside tore that subculture apart.

“Blind” is as bleak as dance music comes, a harrowing tale of introspection turning to fear. Many songs about coming out focus on the external factors, these days serving as reassurance. “Blind,” instead, hits upon the realization that life will never be as easy as once imagined in the ignorance of youth. Though the lyrics stay vague, ANOHNI’s powerhouse delivery makes the message clear. The life that lay before you has been whisked away, the future now an unknown. Messages like this are so necessary; though bleak, this song was a reminder during my own coming out that I was not alone in anxiously pining for the simple life I had been promised.

“Blind” is a comfort song, a track that invites you to dance away those negative feelings. As ANOHNI belts out those despairing lines, there is a sense of power underneath. Between her wavering vocal styling, the slight pause in the percussion, and those horns, disco has never felt more alive.

47. James Blake – “Retrograde” (2013)
from the album Overgrown

Key lyrics:
“Ignore everybody else
We’re alone now”

Though James Blake had been toying with R&B on his first album, “Retrograde” saw him going all in. The result is the best of both worlds, an electronic R&B hybrid brimming with soul. So many fellow electronic artists have made their careers by hiding behind their music, but James Blake stands strong by putting himself in front. Perhaps he got lucky, to have an angelic falsetto to pair with his killer production. This combination has allowed him to craft love songs with an apocalyptic backdrop. “Retrograde” sonically suggests two lovers in a desolate wasteland with only their emotional tension to sustain them.

“Retrograde” opens with nearly a minute of wordless humming above a light backdrop, his intonations rising as the percussion enters. There is a ghostly element here, and his hum lingers in the background as he additionally jumps into a lead part. After a short verse, the instrumentation is overtaken by sirens. The sonic assault grows increasingly dire as Blake gets looped into the chorus. Though the backing part changes, his voice is rarely alone – yet this pairing only reinforces the desolate feel. As he repeatedly insists “we’re alone now,” one can only assume the two lovers are suffering their loneliness apart.

Blake appears defeated by the end, closing out with another minute of wordless yet soulful humming. “Retrograde” is like the shadow of a relationship that could have meant something, the type someone hangs onto well past its expiration. The bookends suggest it is long over, the central section a pained begging for there to have been a deeper meaning.

46. Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime” (1980)
from the album Remain in Light

Key lyrics:
“Same as it ever was, same as it ever was”

I have known and loved “Once in a Lifetime” for over a decade now, yet I still have no idea how to put it into words. Part of the joy of New Wave music was seeing a bunch of artists really exploring what music could do, and none quite approached a limit like this one. It’s odd, because “Once in a Lifetime” is about as ubiquitous as music comes. Talking Heads in collaboration with Brian Eno tapped into some unusual combination that nevertheless resonated with the masses, a track that has endured for its indescribable quality – one can dive into the apparent Afrobeat influences, but the final result exists in its own sphere.

The effect it has on me is easier to describe. The looping instrumental elements are hypnotic, pairing well with David Byrne’s ramblings about the ceaseless passage of time. The sonic elements trickle just a step above ambience, giving enough space that one could easily zone out to it if not for Byrne’s vocals. Which, this is all to say that Byrne’s psychotic preacher persona ties everything together. As he rambles off odd phrases, the lack of immediate meaning is overshadowed by his delivery. This is a man trying desperately to sell you something, and you might just buy it despite not knowing what ‘it’ is. Unusual exclamations like ‘this is not my beautiful wife’ resonate for the bizarre imagery they generate. Could it be possible we are all watching our time slip away with only half our attention? Or are all of his words meaningless fluff to get us hooked on this singular groove? Either way, I am all ears.

45. Foals – “Spanish Sahara” (2010)
from the album Total Life Forever

Key lyrics:
“Forget the horror here
Leave it all down here
It’s future rust, it’s future dust”

“Spanish Sahara” is the slowest of slow builds, a creeping work of existential dread that builds from a quiet post-rock ambience to a furious, arena-sized rocker. Though I immediately find myself drawing comparisons to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” there is as much of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” – few other songs feel like a singular, gigantic crescendo. “Spanish Sahara” starts so low as to force you to bump the volume up, with a change so gradual you’re likely to have it blasting from your speakers without noticing. What better way to represent the act of trying and failing to get a horrific image out of your head?

Yannis Philippakis plays his part well, a wispy voice in the distance. Even as the instrumentation grows around him, he captures an air of fragility. The synthesizers build like rolling waves behind him, pushing him higher while simultaneously threatening to drown him out. By the end, he changes his position from the horrified to the horror itself, finally matching the volume of the instrumentation right as it reaches its peak. As the lyrics fall into a loop, they suggest a numbing cycle, a horror passed down from one man to another.

“Spanish Sahara” is a seven-minute musical odyssey, one that grows on me with every listen. Plenty of artists have attempted a colossal slow build, but few manage such thorough success – from the sparse, glacial opening to the dense crescendo back down to the muted outro, this feels as singular as it does expansive. By treating its big finale as a dreadful culmination instead of a cathartic release, “Spanish Sahara” leaves a devastating impact.

44. A Tribe Called Quest – “Check the Rhime” (1991)
from the album The Low End Theory

Key lyrics:
“So play the resurrector and give the dead some life”

A Tribe Called Quest played to their own rhythm. On “Check the Rhime,” the group is so chilled out that their delivery comes off as conversational. This laid back attitude grants a unique appeal – the rhyming is on point, and the easy pace puts the wordplay at the center. To add to the positive vibes, this is a group more concerned with building themselves up than tearing others down; the second verse kicks off with Phife Dawg bragging about how nice he is, while he and Q-Tip spend much of the track checking in with each other. Yet they do not approach this track without a purpose. Their defense extends to the hip hop scene at large, biting back against commodification from record companies and MC Hammer’s pop take.

The backing samples are key in generating an energy the two rappers sidestep. Most essential is a horn-heavy instrumental section that kicks off the song and eventually backs the chorus, a short burst that doubles up on itself by adding bass halfway through. There is a fine line to balance between easygoing and lazy, and the funky rhythms push “Check the Rhime” to the right side. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg simply sound assured of themselves.

“Check the Rhime” is an effective counterpoint to a lot of mainstream ideas about hip hop. The Tribe avoids foul language on this track, but their rejection of pop appeal shows this choice is not for radio play. Their topics of celebration are markedly humble, yet they are still celebrating. This is a song that demands respect for the scene, to keep hip hop a place of expression for the otherwise disenfranchised.

43. Radiohead – “Let Down” (1997)
from the album OK Computer

Key lyrics:
“One day I am gonna grow wings”

Though overshadowed by the singles, “Let Down” is the true heart of Radiohead’s OK Computer. This lacks the bombast and hooks, but Radiohead instead achieve a state of tranquility few rock bands ever aim toward. Much of OK Computer is a journey of conflicting emotional states, and “Let Down” appears the most straightforward in that regard. Thom Yorke remarks upon feelings of being crushed, subverting every positive thought the moment it crosses his lips. “One day I am gonna grow wings,” he sings, only to morph this angelic image into a science experiment gone wrong. Even when the backdrop is as simple as a busy city, Radiohead captures a sense of hopelessness.

“Let Down” could have been an ordinary Radiohead song, dark lyrics juxtaposed against a magnificent soundscape. But then it pushes further, the instrumentation growing subtly more intense. Though Yorke keeps cutting himself down, a point is made through his repetition – no matter how many times he tells himself it won’t happen, something inside him is keeping his attention on growing those wings. The song never reaches his escape, but more than any other Radiohead song, “Let Down” suggests there is reason to hope.

The finale is a genuine moment of beauty. Yorke duets with himself, sustaining angelic notes with one breath as the other fights through his inner turmoil. Instead of ironic grace, the music is allowed to play out not with the sentimentality Yorke rejected earlier but legitimate sincerity. No other song can make me feel so simultaneously hopeful and crushed by the weight of the world.

42. LCD Soundsystem – “Dance Yrself Clean” (2010)
from the album This Is Happening

Key lyrics:
“And if we wait until the weekend
We can miss the best things to do”

“Dance Yrself Clean” will always hold a special place to me. In the middle of high school, after getting really into the Rock Band series, I was looking up a song and stumbled across a website called Acclaimed Music, which is dedicated to compiling various critic lists into one master list. Recognizing and liking a few of the higher songs convinced me to go through the top several hundred songs. Despite having a song in Grand Theft Auto IV, LCD Soundsystem were pretty much unknown to me. Nevertheless, the tracks I heard from them really clicked.

This Is Happening became the first album I truly anticipated, and anyone who has listened knows the power “Dance Yrself Clean” holds as an opening track. It starts at a practical whisper as James Murphy weaves through the worst kind of party. Friendship has been a key topic for LCD Soundsystem, and “Dance Yrself Clean” takes the longing from “All My Friends” and replaces it with people who really do not care. This disillusionment seems to be an odd place to kick off; so many albums want to immediately grab your attention, but Murphy appears happy to meander. The percussion is strong and a gentle synth ambles through, but the building tension is only hinted at through growing nonverbal ahhs.

Suddenly, right around the three minute mark, traditional rock drums barge in, paired with a pounding synth-line. “Dance Yrself Clean” immediately transforms into a full-bodied dance track without missing a beat, Murphy’s resigned attitude exploding into a righteous anger. This is the quiet-loud-quiet formula extended to epic length. By design, this is meant to be an album opener, but it struck such a powerful chord that it now stands among their defining tracks. LCD Soundsystem know how to harness dance music as an emotive force.

41. Dirty Projectors – “Stillness is the Move” (2009)
from the album Bitte Orca

Key lyrics:
“After all that we’ve been through
I know that I will always love you”

Dirty Projectors could easily pass as the most hipster of hipster bands, but there is something about “Stillness is the Move” in particular that resonates on a more accessible level. It is still undeniably odd; the rhythm here is something that expects the listener to adjust to its unusual angles. But so much of the final project feels like a celebration of the female voice. Though typically led by David Longstreth, he takes a backseat to Amber Coffman, who shows a range on level with the best pop vocalists.

“Stillness is the Move” is a love song by way of existentialism, taking most of its lyrics from German film masterpiece Wings of Desire. But like the source material, it takes existentialism as a call to action, a reason to find our own meaning. It suggests a world full of possibility and takes on love as a backbone. The avant-garde elements reinforce this idea, showing the most unfamiliar tones can suggest beauty if given the necessary space to grow. Dirty Projectors refuse to meet halfway, but the reward for getting on their level is unlike anything else.

Though a thing of beauty, “Stillness is the Move” also has a cool edge. The instrumentation frequently pauses as though stumbling over itself, a remarkable groove that fashions a unique concept for dancing. Every element chases the same auditory high as Coffman’s voice, achieving a rare serenity. This is pop music as an endpoint, the result of a musical madman reflecting on the past several decades of music and shooting for an inimitable but engaging sound. “Stillness is the Move” is a shimmering monolith.

40. Pulp – “Common People” (1995)
from the album Different Class

Key lyrics:
“You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go”

Great art can transport us to very specific moments, and “Common People” is a crowning achievement. Jarvis Cocker spends these six minutes tearing into a rich young woman who has decided to slum it up for a bit, ruminating on all the issues she will never comprehend due to her easy escape. I’ve certainly never met someone like that, but Cocker manages to get my blood boiling anyway. In many ways, this song is a rejection of my initial statement – how much can we really understand an experience through the eyes of outsiders? But the subject of Cocker’s ire goes a step beyond, imposing herself on a world where everyone else is just trying to live their lives.

Outside of its subject matter, “Common People” buzzes with all the best elements of Britpop. A bubbly synthesizer sets the scene, the opening segment gentle. Each further section adds another little detail, a growing wall of sound that maintains its simple appeal. The easygoing sound effortlessly picks up energy during the first bridge and only lets up during a brief moment of restraint in a later verse. Pulp subtly up the tension throughout the entire song, never falling into an easy groove as the lyrics constantly evolve.

Jarvis Cocker gives a distinct performance, his growing exasperation fully selling his ire. In a scene which seemed defined by a certain level of smugness, Cocker tears that attitude down as much as he plays it up. He treats the girl with as much condescension, but his self-awareness makes him the hero of this particular piece. Few artistic movements have had such an obviously emblematic piece like Britpop had “Common People.”

39. The Smiths – “How Soon is Now?” (1984)
from the album Hatful of Hollow

Key lyrics:
“I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does”

“How Soon is Now?” is far from a typical Smiths track. Even brooding, the band tended toward a jangle pop aesthetic, but this track finds them embracing a post-punk feel. Morrissey takes on a more muted presence, choosing to strike with a few key phrases than dominate the entire song. With the relatively small number of lyrics, Morrissey pulls off some of his most relatable pained lines. A breakdown in the middle sends shockwaves. Morrissey seemingly encourages his listener to try and find love at a club, only to immediately remark upon the inevitable failure. “How Soon is Now?” is a club hit self-aware of the overwhelming feeling of trying to go out and meet people.

Johnny Marr and his reverberating guitar stand at the forefront of “How Soon is Now?” If Morrissey’s words paint a doomed picture, Marr’s echoing guitar suggests a full-on apocalypse. The cataclysmic tone plays on two distinct levels, an emotive cry and a sparkling rhythm. The guitar as an instrument rarely touches upon such a striking combination, bridging together pure atmosphere and dance music. A slide note serves the ultimate strike, a shivering dose of dread preying upon the song’s vulnerability.

Despite his unbearable demeanor, Morrissey can tap into human emotions better than most lyricists. Pairing that with a guitar part which would sound more at home in a subtle noise rock track grants an unforgettable power. “How Soon is Now?” is inimitable, a fusion of so many aesthetics that plays to the best elements of them all. With this track, The Smiths briefly shed their twee proclivities to play the coolest band on earth.

38. Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” (1993)
from the album Pussy Whipped

Key lyrics:
“In her kiss, I taste the revolution”

Bikini Kill is about as punk as punk gets. When so many punk acts vaguely raged against authority while speaking largely in universally relatable terms, Kathleen Hanna and company simply did not care if their works connected with people at large. Fully embracing the riot grrrl movement, they made songs for a very specific community and did it well. “Rebel Girl” is designed to be grating to outsiders, a politically-minded lesbian anthem that finds Hanna literally shrieking to get her point across. This is an effective repellant against ninety percent of straight men.

The enduring success comes down to that sense of specificity. “Rebel Girl” captures a very unique type of young woman who rarely gets an anthem of her own. Hanna weaves an interesting narrative, not just focusing on the titular rebel girl but having her narrator fall madly in love. This creates a stellar sense of time and place, calling back to an era when queer young women were finally allowed to develop their own communities. Whether or not Hanna herself is queer, “Rebel Girl” signaled the riot grrrl movement as having open arms.

Purely as a sonic piece, “Rebel Girl” has a distinct flavor. Opening with a marching rhythm, Bikini Kill suggest a revolutionary takeover. Hanna’s abrasive delivery lends her a bratty self-assuredness, and several moments find her seemingly trailing off while hypnotized by the subject of her affection. The guitars are insistent in their repetitive tone, centering Hanna’s vocals while adding a forceful edge. By design, “Rebel Girl” is not to everyone’s taste, but it is a prime example of the punk movement as a voice for marginalized communities.

37. Underworld – “Rez” (1993)
non-album single

Before Underworld captured the seediest dance club on earth with “Born Slippy,” they crafted one of the most uplifting pieces of electronic music ever recorded. Though “Rez” lacks lyrics, it kicks off with a bubbly synth line and only moves skyward. This is progressive trance, jumping from one familiar tone to the next, ever building upon its foundation while leaving the listener hypnotized throughout. A prime example of the human side of electronic music, “Rez” taps into a sense of elation I struggle to describe. How can I put into words the way these tones affect me? All I know is that I can turn this ten minute track on and immediately be drawn into a better state of mind.

The constant sense of motion is part of the appeal. For whatever reason, “Rez” leaves me feeling like I’m sitting in a subway car, bright red tunnel lights flashing by with every beat. As a song, it asks nothing of me, instead moving me of its own accord. In fact, the idea of dancing along seems impossible. The sense of motion it generates is an internal rhythm, one that cannot be replicated in the physical realm.

Describing a song in these terms makes me feel like a madman, but “Rez” has earned my vulnerability. Some art denies an easy explanation. “Rez” is something primal, an electronic piece from the 90s that sounds inherently and eternally futuristic. In it, I hear wonder at the cosmos and an ever-evolving sense of what it means to be alive.

36. Sufjan Stevens – “Chicago” (2005)
from the album Illinois

Key lyrics:
“I made a lot of mistakes”

On Illinois, Sufjan Stevens fuses a religious journey with stark portraits of my home state. On the central track titled after the biggest city, he makes the striking decision to cut back from solid descriptions and instead take on a metaphysical state. After all, what can be said about such an enormous place in one song? Sufjan has to play on a higher level to capture the spirit of the city.

In the religious context of the album, “Chicago” acts as the pilgrimage song – of course Chicago would be the metaphorical Mecca of Illinois. The track begins with chimes like an elevator – one can imagine stepping out on the top floor of the former and forever Sears Tower and standing in awe of the sprawl below as the other instruments lift off. Sufjan Stevens is a maximalist, and his wall of sound is out in full force over this track. The horns, the strings, the backing vocals; if Sufjan was trying to capture a personal confrontation with God, he very well achieved it with this arrangement.

At the same time, a contradictory sense of motion pervades this track. Sufjan appears restless, repeating “I made a lot of mistakes” over and over even as the choir reassures him. These moments of doubt are what make Sufjan such an effective Christian in the popular sphere. He explores the rough side of faith, and even his moments of self-discovery are tinted with regret. Yet he chooses to let us get lost in the epic grandeur, his voice fading into the background of the final chorus before an extended outro. Even as he questions himself, Sufjan wants us to feel a sense of wonder.

35. The Smiths – “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (1986)
from the album The Queen is Dead

Key lyrics:
“And in the darkened underpass
I thought, ‘Oh God, my chance has come at last’
But then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask”

I have remarked numerous times upon love songs reading more sincerely to me from unusual sources. I trust goth rock artists who are stepping outside their comfort zone more than I do pop singers who have made their career out of loving declarations. But even acts like The Cure and Nick Cave tend to hold back on their morbid impulses when writing from the heart. With “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” The Smiths manage an improbable balancing act between grotesque imagery and utmost sincerity. Though Morrissey is known for an acerbic tongue, this song works all the better with straightforward language.

Though Morrissey holds back on his witticisms, he makes up for it with the extremity of his meaning. So many love songs rely on exaggeration, and this song takes a violent route by calling upon car accidents. Whether it’s by a double-decker bus or a ten-ton truck, Morrissey would be happy to die with his lover. This chorus sounds like the declaration of a crazy person, but it also speaks to a certain truth – when you really love someone, sometimes those morbid thoughts spill out.

The backing music is a complex arrangement, with synthesized strings swelling behind Morrissey. The whole piece is dense, a flurry as mixed as Morrissey’s emotions. Though ostensibly a love song, it plays from the angle of someone uncertain about so many things. The song closes with Morrissey repeating the title nearly a dozen times, and it’s never quite clear how we should take it. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” succeeds by so perfectly capturing a youthful mix of angst and passion.

34. OutKast – “Hey Ya” (2003)
from the album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Key lyrics:
“Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance”

On The Love Below, Andre 3000 stepped outside of hip hop to explore a myriad of other genres. “Hey Ya” is his take on pop, and it might just be the greatest mainstream pop song ever recorded. The rhythm is immensely danceable, the lyrics as memetic as they are surprisingly introspective. Andre 3000 sings with such range, and his ironic delivery grants a greater sense of depth than most pop hits. This is a rare song that came along and seemingly spoke to every major circle.

As someone born in 1992, no single release has felt bigger than “Hey Ya” – perhaps Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” is the only competitor in the 21st century. As I noted while writing about “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” some songs feel so essential to my development as a listener that I struggle to think of them in objective terms. “Hey Ya” was among the first songs to truly speak to me – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was the first album I ever bought. But where I struggle to appreciate the familiarity of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Hey Ya” has the opposite problem – how can I comprehend anyone viewing it as less than stellar? The brilliance feels intrinsic to me – for me to put another song on the same level as “Hey Ya” is the greatest praise I can give.

The success is simple. “Hey Ya” takes a little bit from every popular genre and refines it into a singular form. The extended bridge is an absolute cultural monolith – ‘what’s cooler than being cool,’ the alright breakdown, ‘shake it like a Polaroid picture.’ Most songs are lucky to get a single line in the zeitgeist, but “Hey Ya” seemingly imprinted its entire form on the popular consciousness. Yet Andre 3000 commands our attention, emphasizing these catchy phrases while letting the darker lines remain understated – just how many people have sung along to ‘what makes, what makes’ without quite parsing ‘what makes love the exception’ as the endpoint? Andre 3000 predicted our simple takeaway, making “Hey Ya” as much a scathing criticism of pop music as one of its finest examples.

33. The Rapture – “House of Jealous Lovers” (2002)
from the album Echoes

Key lyrics:

Though better known as the front man of LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy started as a DJ and record producer. “House of Jealous Lovers” was the first release from his company, a dance-punk track with more explosive energy than anything Murphy would make once his own band took off. Lead singer Luke Jenner gives one of the most absurd performances in rock history without any hint of shame. His harsh vocals are at first grating, but they also speak to a compellingly raw element in punk. The lyrics are as repetitive and simple as they come, existing more for Jenner’s violent shout than to convey meaning.

Once you get past the vocals (…if you can), “House of Jealous Lovers” hits with unbelievable energy. This is a track that makes perfect use of every single instrument. The song kicks off with a killer bassline and then adds a bit of cowbell – the track grooves out to this simple arrangement for forty-five seconds only for the bass to drop out and leave the percussion on its own. Then the guitar comes in. Though dance-punk might typically be defined more by grooves than a riff, this is the glorious exception. That guitar is the stuff of legends, an all-timer if it ever captures a wider audience.

Once dance-punk became defined as an intentional genre, it disappeared almost as quickly. Even if LCD Soundsystem grew to be the bigger name, “House of Jealous Lovers” feels like the real beating heart of the movement. This is a peak of both rock and dance that conforms to the expectations of neither. It’s lightning in a bottle, a song that so perfectly defined the aspirations of its subgenre that few others have been able to expand upon its promise.

32. Beck – “Loser” (1993)
from the album Mellow Gold

Key lyrics:
“Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’t you kill me?”

It takes a certain skill to speak nonsense with absolute conviction. On his breakthrough, Beck certainly seems to be saying something, so convincing in his performance that one might blithely accept there must be some deeper meaning. The truth is that each line features such a strong cadence that we trick ourselves into thinking there must be a stronger connective tissue. Beck speaks in riddles, and each line could very well lead into the next – the trick is that each line acts like a word association game. There may be a semblance of an idea between each line, but it rarely stretches beyond that pair.

What is clear is that the chorus struck a perfect note for the alternative rock movement. What better defines Generation X than that nonchalant, defeatist slogan? Though it is clearly an endpoint for his nonsense flow, it is a testament to how evocative Beck’s delivery can be. Despite having no idea what the verses mean, they’re so catchy I can largely recite them from memory. Who needs meaning when a phrase sounds cool?

This all works because Beck is such a master experimenter. The dominating slide guitar offers an unusual hook, and the verses feature a trippy sitar element. The bridge makes use of back-masking. The overall sound draws upon the folk-rap that Bob Dylan suggested possible with “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” We lump it into the alternative rock movement more by association than by sound – Beck has always been playing his own game. “Loser” set the scene for a beautifully odd career.

31. Love – “Alone Again Or” (1967)
from the album Forever Changes

Key lyrics:
“’You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are the greatest fun’
And I will be alone again tonight my dear”

“Alone Again Or” denies easy classification, psychedelic folk rock playing with a Spanish guitar sound before going full Mariachi with strings and horns. Each verse is punctuated by an extended acoustic solo. This is a constantly shifting soundscape, but whether it is at its sparsest or most elaborate sequence, it is connected by anxious paranoia. The chorus is a mocking take on the free love movement, an aching cry of loneliness from someone wanting commitment. Love drenched this song in emotional vulnerability.

What makes this so compelling is its central cycle. The three verses are short, closing out with the same line each time. Though the second verse ends in a quiet guitar solo like the first, it expands into a horn-led instrumental break. Additionally, the quiet guitar solo acts as a reset after the first two verses, a way of quieting things down to slowly build back up to the peak of that defining line. The way it trails off at the end instead suggests defeat. Though “Alone Again Or” essentially consists of three slight variations, it journeys through disappointment, passion, and despair.

“Alone Again Or” achieves a timeless element through its mixture of familiar yet disparate sounds. The Spanish influence shines through, setting a specific scene even as the lyrics keep it vague. Though the horn arrangement draws distinctly from Mariachi music, they play it with tension rarely captured in the popular sphere. Love might not be anywhere near the biggest acts of their own era, but “Alone Again Or” perfectly captures the spirit of innovation that dominated the late-60s.

30. Nina Simone – “Sinnerman” (1965)
from the album Pastel Blues

Key lyrics:
“Lord, Lord, hear me praying”

“Sinnerman” is spiritual jazz by way of Revelations. Nina Simone plays the most haunted woman in music, running all over the place in hope of salvation after a life of sin. The desperation in her voice is matched by the frantic backing band – even as the song stretches over ten minutes, it never loses the sense that all of time is running out. The piano and cymbal patter alone make this a convincing panic attack, but then Simone brings in a backing choir to echo her words in a visceral cry.

After an instrumental break, the instruments subtly fade out until nothing but clapping remains. This interlude helps reset the tone – making an extended track truly work is a difficult task, but Simone and her band expertly establish “Sinnerman” as having distinct movements, even as the back half returns to a familiar sound. But even as she retreads that ground, the repeating shouts of ‘power’ come off more celebratory than desperate.

And, boy, does Nina Simone know how to end a song. With nearly two minutes to go, the instruments stumble to a sudden stop as Simone begins scatting. As her wordless cries take shape into pleas for God’s forgiveness, only her frantic piano dares to assist. Nina Simone is a true vocal powerhouse, and her voice alone is enough to match the orchestrated tension that built up over the last eight minutes. This is a musical breakdown of enormous magnitude, one that demands an extended journey to justify the mood. Vocal jazz is not typically associated with expansive epics or urgency, but “Sinnerman” proves the infinite possibilities of music in expert hands.

29. The Jam – “Going Underground” (1980)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“And the public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society’s got”

New Wave evolved out of the punk movement, but few New Wave hits captured the political unease that drove much of the British punk scene. “Going Underground” is a prime exception, a song written with surprising articulation about the contemporary social climate. Instead of continuing the anger of that earlier movement, The Jam largely choose to celebrate those who stand against the mainstream. Despite topping the charts in its homeland, “Going Underground” is among the finest homages to the indie scene while still getting in some excellent jabs at British society.

The Jam play this song with exceptional force. Yet unlike the frenetic energy of a Ramones song, they somehow manage to come off as relaxed. “Going Underground” is a particularly hard song to classify, very much a rock song but calling upon some very specific movements while similarly subverting the major expectations. This is punk at ease, New Wave without experimentation, mod with emphasis on groove as much as the melody. The result is a track with mass appeal that sheds generic descriptors, as traditionally rock as it is a singular creation.

At this heightened pace, Paul Weller barrels through his lyrics, but he sings with enough clarity that every line is crisply delivered. He emphasizes the simple life while lamenting British warmongering. A key line change really says it all – ‘the public gets what the public wants’ transforms into ‘the public wants what the public gets.’ Why aim for mass appeal when the mass media has its own agenda? The fact this hit number one in Britain does not defeat its message – The Jam were speaking a truth that resonated in a style anyone could enjoy.

28. Primal Scream – “Loaded” (1990)
from the album Screamadelica

Primal Scream made dance music like no others. While not as outright trippy as “Higher Than the Sun,” “Loaded” might be the more pointedly risky. This is a seven minute epic that simply grooves out for its duration, a song that asks its listeners to chill and take it easy. Though there are vocal samples, it’s all just a blur of music. Screamadelica is one of the most explicit odes to drugs and alcohol ever recorded. Where “Higher Than the Sun” finds Bobby Gillespie expressing a sense of higher thought through lyrics, “Loaded” makes its purpose known purely through an opening sample and its own groove. This is a track designed for the height of a drunken stupor, a victorious fanfare for those too loaded to think.

What makes “Loaded” so interesting is how unique it sounds while being so obviously constructed from familiar parts. On their rock-oriented tracks, Primal Scream do their best Rolling Stones impression, and the central groove on “Loaded” may as well be a tripped out take on “Sympathy for the Devil.” The R&B vocal sample clearly exists to evoke a gospel edge, matching the pseudo-religious quality of the rest of the album. While the inspirations are easy to name, “Loaded” exists in its own sphere.

The personal question I must ask is why this drug-fueled celebration resonates with my rather straight edge personality. The power in psychedelic music is not necessarily how much it truly pairs with drugs, but how much it evokes that atmosphere. “Loaded” paints a vibrant image of a party even as I sit alone listening on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning.

27. The Stone Roses – “Fools Gold” (1989)
non-album single, featured on certain printings of The Stone Roses

Key lyrics:
“These boots were made for walking
The Marquis de Sade don’t wear no boots like these”

Rock and roll has rarely been as dance-oriented as The Stone Roses on “Fools Gold.” This is a ten minute groove piece, a song inviting you to get lost in its hypnotic rhythm. The instrumentation is surprisingly understated, the bass and drums placed firmly in the foreground. To keep attention focused squarely on the dance elements, Ian Brown gives a strikingly lethargic performance. His laidback attitude lends an easy feel to a song that otherwise carries surprising force – yet his words also strike tension.

The bass is pure funk excellence, something that would stand on its own but perfectly ties together the chaotic soundscape that “Fools Gold” grows into. The song could have easily ended after Brown delivers his last line, but continuing with another five minute instrumental section really drives it home. During this section, a heavily distorted guitar occasionally rockets forward, adding new life to the now-familiar rhythm. Even after finding their groove, The Stone Roses keep bursting forward with more energy. Bass and drums can rarely sustain a song alone, but “Fools Gold” expertly reinvents the other elements.

This is a song I can simply get lost in, commanding a sonic space beyond its dance-rock leaning. There is a sense of ambience as it occasionally settles into its groove, only to repeatedly deny that easy listening. It demands attention while never being too aggressive. “Fools Gold” is such an obvious inspiration for British music in the decade that followed, yet its extended take puts it in another category entirely.

26. Sam Cooke – “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964)
from the album Ain’t That Good News

Key lyrics:
“It’s been too hard livin’
But I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky”

“A Change Is Gonna Come” is an eternal classic of the Civil Rights Movement, a song as devastating as it is inspirational. Even as Sam Cooke details his experiences with racism, he insists that change is possible. Instead of matching pop sensibilities of the time like most of Cooke’s other hits, the song was produced with a symphonic quality. Built more as a mission statement, its enduring success proves the intelligence of that choice – this is a work of sweeping beauty that captures the spirit of America in its time. Though Cooke was writing from an African American perspective, his chorus works as a universal battle cry for the disenfranchised of all varieties. Nearly sixty years on, its message hits just as hard.

Playing against strings and horns as the leading instruments can be a challenge, but there is such depth and warmth in Cooke’s voice that he earns the heightened presentation. This is a sound one typically associates with extravagant show-stopping numbers, but Cooke keeps everything grounded through his stark lyricism. The strings swell behind him as he reaches the apex of the later verses, emphasizing his powerful delivery. This is peak soul singing, spiritual power with the instrumentation to match.

“A Change is Gonna Come” hit a lot of perfect notes to land among the quintessential Civil Rights songs, but most important is its realistic approach. The mixing of strife and hope is key; strife without hope is devastating, while hope without strife is a bit too optimistic. “A Change is Gonna Come” strikes a perfect balance while featuring such grand sonic power as to immediately capture attention.

My Top 250 Songs Part 8 (#75-51)

75. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey” (1985)
from the album Psychocandy

Key lyrics:
“Walking back to you
Is the hardest thing that
I can do”

The noise pop sound of The Jesus and Mary Chain borders on paradox. As the band sifts through heavy guitar feedback, they somehow capture an understated calm. Part of this is in the droll vocal stylings of Jim Reid, singing half-energetically as if a chaotic force isn’t brewing behind him. Another part is the “Be My Baby” drums that open the song, casting a steady beat that overpower the noise in its own way. This is another engineering success story, the mix putting these elements at the same level and letting them interact in seemingly contradictory ways.

While writing about The Cure, I mentioned that their dark edge gives a heightened sense of sincerity to their fluffier pieces. “Just Like Honey” works on a similar level, but The Jesus and Mary Chain captures sonic unease with loving sentimentality in the same breath. The feedback operates like butterflies in the stomach, a flittering sickly feeling. It’s a love song, sure, but one in which the narrator knows his love is not good for him as he desperately clings anyway.

If anything, “Just Like Honey” cites “Be My Baby” to declare itself the logical conclusion of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The Jesus and Mary Chain are asking whether a cascade of instruments is necessary, or could simple guitar feedback simulate the constant presence? The answer appears to be yes – no matter how noisy, the feedback takes a backseat to the typical song structure. “Just Like Honey” is an ordinary pop song grimed up for the 80s alternative scene.

74. David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto – “Forbidden Colours” (1983)
from the album Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence OST

Key lyrics:
“I’ll go walking in circles while doubting the very ground beneath me”

“Forbidden Colours” is an exemplary film track, a bombastic scene-stealer that should be on the same cultural level as “My Heart Will Go On” or “I Will Always Love You.” Alas, the film to which it is attached was destined to obscurity, so it never received its moment in the spotlight. The song is the vocal version of the main theme, which itself has become a minor Christmas classic. Sakamoto’s ambient soundscape suggests an introspective wintry mood, like walking through the snow-blanketed woods. It captures the best qualities of modern Japanese film scores – Joe Hisaishi, the composer for most of Miyazaki’s films, had been inspired by Sakomoto’s earlier band, and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” could just as easily have appeared in one of those majestic films.

Like Julee Cruise’s “Falling,” David Sylvian’s “Forbidden Colours” recontextualizes a gentle theme into a love song. In this case, the song oozes with tension. Taking its title from a Yukio Mishima novel, Sylvian evokes homoromantic desires without so much as mentioning his love’s gender. One can read shame in the lyrics, considering Sylvian’s insistent use of ‘my love’ to refer to this other person. There is a crisis of faith, which Sylvian matches with crushing passion. Few songs so perfectly capture the tragedy of falling for someone you are not allowed – though less taboo in this era, Sylvian’s powerful vocals echo so much unspoken historical grief. The result is something ageless. Though the instrumental version is meditative alone, it transforms into something altogether haunting and otherwordly when paired with Sylvian.

73. Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way” (1976)
from the album Rumours

Key lyrics:
“If I could, maybe I’d give you my world
How can I when you won’t take it from me?”

Rumours hits harder than pretty much every other breakup album because it captures both sides. “Go Your Own Way” finds Lindsey Buckingham casually lashing out, all while ex-lover Stevie Nicks is forced to sing along. Though the verses cut through Nicks specifically, the chorus is a classic burst of catharsis for everyone involved. Despite breakups causing a flurry of emotions, many songs reduce this to sadness or anger. “Go Your Own Way” instead captures the flippant glee of telling an ex to sod off, but not with so much force as to suggest they saw nothing of value in their relationship. Rather, this is the lonely cry of someone who felt like they weren’t getting what they deserved, grinning through their pain just to show they can move on.

Part of the appeal is that Fleetwood Mac were doing this soft rock sound right as punk was taking off. But in spite of their lighter music, Fleetwood Mac suggested something just as raw in their emotions as those young men did with their simple instrumentation. If the punk movement was largely a rejection of artifice, Fleetwood Mac made an unlikely companion to the era.

“Go Your Own Way” is also a structural masterpiece. The heavy acoustic strumming of the verses plays perfectly against the cohesive gliding of the chorus. In lieu of additional verses, the last two choruses are divided by two guitar solos. Despite the emotional complexity, Fleetwood Mac do not fall back on lyrics; there really aren’t many lines on this track. Instead, they let the instruments do the talking. And though these solos might not have the sonic intensity of a hard rocker, they express heavy emotions.

72. Elton John – “Your Song” (1970)
from the album Elton John

Key lyrics:
“I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind
That I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world”

Though Elton John has had a long and illustrious career, nothing hits quite like his breakthrough single. “Your Song” is about as perfect as a traditional love song can be. The lyrics are sincerely effective, any sense of sentimentality cut down by Elton’s delivery of humbling lines. As he begins a metaphor about a sculptor, he laughs and stops himself. There is a sense of self-awareness about this song, which adds to the sincerity as Elton belts out the heartfelt chorus. This is a song that has brought me tears of joy, and even when I find myself between relationships, it remains a striking reminder of the power of love. No declaration of love hits me as hard as those key lines above. The fact this was written by a teenager and performed by a closeted man only reinforces the sense Taupin and Elton tapped into a universal idea.

The arrangement allows Elton’s vocals to remain front and center. During the opening, the piano takes up most of the soundscape, with the gentle strum of a guitar adding light punctuation. This is a song that swells as Elton gets caught up in his emotions. The second verse adds percussion, giving a rising sense of motion. “Your Song” is an exercise in how to subtly expand a quiet ballad into a showstopper. Though Elton is practically shouting by the end, there is no sense of detachment from that quiet opening. The lyrics are phenomenal, but the steadily rising emotional delivery makes “Your Song” a true masterpiece.

71. John Cale – “Paris 1919” (1973)
from the album Paris 1919

Key lyrics:
“She makes me so unsure of myself”

Though consistently overshadowed by Lou Reed in the popular sphere, John Cale’s solo career deserves just as much attention. “Paris 1919” lacks the aggression of Cale’s work with The Velvet Underground, but his sense of exploration remains. The Beach Boys and The Beatles had already made great strides in establishing baroque pop, but John Cale dived deeper into the baroque side of the equation. Where songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “God Only Knows” sounded like modern pop with classical instruments, “Paris 1919” sounds like a bona fide period piece. It is a song that feels particularly difficult to place, too elaborate for the time of its setting but showing no signs of the 1970s either. Like Nick Drake’s “River Man” or Vashti Bunyan’s “Diamond Day,” “Paris 1919” is a portal to an alternate realm where popular music took a distinct turn somewhere far in the past.

Picking apart any individual element is difficult. No instrument comes off as particularly complex in its arrangement, but the simple volume of instruments is the striking point. Just as the song seems to be settling into a familiar groove, it trails off into a brief ambient atmosphere. Despite the difficult lyrics, the whole piece comes off as a celebratory parade. Cale keeps a sing-song cadence, descending into a string of ‘la la las’ during the chorus. Though the total soundscape is something massive, Cale’s vocals turn this into an accessible and catchy tune. “Paris 1919” is pure atmosphere, showcasing a magical ability for music to transport us to another time and place.

70. Phoebe Bridgers – “Kyoto” (2020)
from the album Punisher

Key lyrics:
“I wanted to see the world
Then I flew over the ocean
And I changed my mind”

There are few things in life more underwhelming than achieving a lifelong dream and realizing little has changed. With Bridgers’ depressive lyrics, the horn-heavy “Kyoto” feels like an inverse of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” Both songs take the idea of visiting a distant city as an act of self-discovery, but where Sufjan found freedom, Phoebe Bridgers gets caught up in the anxiety of her home life. It is a simple yet blunt realization – our inner demons cannot be escaped through physical movement.

After the first verse, the song shifts gears almost exclusively to her abusive father. She finds herself in a contradictory bubble, hating him but also fearing for him. Her specific imagery paints a stark picture of a man who halfheartedly tries to connect, and Bridgers sounds frustrated with herself for returning that same energy. “Kyoto” so perfectly captures the pressure to try and relate to family members, no matter what they have done. Changes in phrasing between the two choruses are so vital, linking the two central thoughts together.

With all these depressing ideas, the fact “Kyoto” comes off as such an uplifting song is a testament to its vibrant soundscape. The instrumentation grows increasingly dense and energetic as it progresses; while Kyoto did not provide the easy answers Bridgers desires, she has at least learned something. “Kyoto” in many ways feels like a rejection of her signature brooding. Instead of stewing in her disappointment, she has grown from it. She may end the song by repeatedly calling herself a liar, but the self-awareness of that statement shows room for change that no visit to a city can provide.

69. Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (2005)
from the album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Key lyrics:
“Stop making the eyes at me
I’ll stop making the eyes at you
What it is that surprises me
Is that I don’t really want you to”

Arctic Monkeys may have arrived at the tail-end of the garage rock revival era, but they kicked off their career with one of the most iconic songs of the movement. “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is about as frantic as rock comes, thrash-worthy despite never sounding anything close to metal. The lyrics suggest little more than lusting after cheap sex but add to the sickly barroom feel the band thrives on. Further, the numerous references help play up the bawdy delivery, a sonic encapsulation of young men trying to work their way into bed by being a tiny bit clever.

“I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is really as straightforward as that. Few bands, whether punk or otherwise, have truly tapped upon the fast but simple ideology Ramones established quite like Arctic Monkeys on their debut hit. This is one of those rare modern rock songs that preys upon some primal appeal. The clanging guitar and Alex Turner’s harsh delivery lend this the skeeviest atmosphere, one of those songs that so perfectly simulates a mood that you somehow embrace the negative associations. It calls up memories of young men visiting clubs for the first time, as confident as they are completely out of their element.

Despite never being one of those young straight men, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” speaks to me. The rawness of Arctic Monkeys’ performance captures a universally recognizable passion. One can only hope to feel this intense about anything.

68. Primal Scream – “Higher Than the Sun” (1991)
from the album Screamadelica

Key lyrics:
“Hallucinogens can open me or untie me”

Most bands try to be clever while talking about drug use, leading to a world where any song that might be about drugs is assumed as such. “Higher Than the Sun” cuts straight to the point, directly referencing hallucinogens before Bobby Gillespie rambles about spiritual enlightenment. This track takes itself so seriously that it could have been laughable, but Primal Scream bring the sonic elements to back up its grandiose claims. Even today, there are few songs that sound anything like this. “Higher Than the Sun” blends together psychedelia, ambient, and downtempo electronic to make something distinct among its many parts. It opens with a series of slow explosions and expands into a collage of stray sounds, chanted woos sounding like tripped out owls which cast the whole experience as a trek through a neon forest.

The effect this song has had on me is hard to describe. I have never done drugs nor do I care to try, but the pure sonic ambience of this track pulls me in like nothing else. Though I don’t have synesthesia, this song manages to bring to mind a specific and hallucinatory array of colors. I can count the number of songs that have consistently had this effect on one hand, so “Higher Than the Sun” belongs to an elite group. As such, this is one of those cases where I have no idea whether this song speaks to anyone else in the way it does me. Whatever the case, the mesmerizing soundscape on display here is essential.

67. The War on Drugs – “Red Eyes” (2013)
from the album Lost in the Dream

Key lyrics:
“I would keep you here, but I can’t”

The War on Drugs are obvious about their influences, “Red Eyes” being the best heartland rock song this side of Bruce Springsteen. But to command a familiar sound decades after it is established requires a finer touch. Though this captures the propulsive energy of an escape song, The War on Drugs balances a soft ambience atop their traditional rock arrangement. Those opening notes suggest something colossal, setting a tension for the building wall of sound to capitalize upon. Few songs expand so convincingly.

The song opens with a sustained synth, followed by a simple pairing of drums and guitar. The opening suggests a mellow piece, with several moments where the guitar pulls back, leaving just the quiet synth and a heavy beat. But then Adam Granduciel leads into the chorus with an explosive shout, the hardest hitting exclamation in music since the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The lead guitar picks up a heavy riff while a handful of instruments add to the wall. Granduciel’s vocals become so layered they border on incomprehensible. Right as everything takes off, “Red Eyes” takes an extended bridge, again reducing itself largely to the beat and muted ambience. The various instruments are slow to ramp up again, but the effect is like kicking the dust up while barreling down a country road.

“Red Eyes” is not a song I liked at first. It is a slow build without so much a payoff as a steady flow. But the more I listened, the more I fell into its unique rhythm. Though easiest to compare to Springsteen, the true success here is its subtle touch of dream pop. Granduciel’s “woo” is the finest of wake up calls, effortlessly bridging two wildly different genres.

66. Mitski – “Nobody” (2018)
from the album Be the Cowboy

Key lyrics:
“Give me one good movie kiss
And I’ll be alright”

Some songs just come out at the perfect time in your life. Be the Cowboy dropped right before I asked for my divorce, and “Nobody” took on the role of an immediate comfort jam. Worse yet is the more universal role it has taken on amid the COVID-19 pandemic – the opening lines referencing being so lonely as to open a window in the hopes of hearing passing strangers feels all too relevant. Like “B.O.B.” during the early 2000s, “Nobody” feels disarmingly prescient.

Even without that strange coincidence, “Nobody” first clicked because it so expertly captures the feeling of loneliness. In the first half, Mitski asks for an ‘honest’ kiss; this turns into a ‘movie’ kiss by the second. Even a simulation is better than the nothing she has. The chorus is legendary in its simplicity, taking on one word but delivering it in so many different ways. By the end, each syllable of ‘nobody’ is dragged out until it no longer feels whole. This is a cry of absolute despair.

Naturally, such a dire theme is paired with much happier music. The song opens with a skittering drum pattern, immediately casting this as an indie disco jam. Mitski plays this up throughout the first half, all the sonic dissonance of a New Wave track. There’s even a double-clap during the second verse to really drill it in. But then we get to the extended chorus, where Mitski repeats ‘nobody’ for an entire minute. The music just keeps rising, the disco beat morphing into an aggressive anxiety attack – “Nobody” is no longer playing at New Wave irony, suggesting Mitski can no longer force the façade. This is an expertly aching song, dangerously catchy enough that I keep returning despite all the pain.

65. New Order – “Temptation” (1982)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“And I’ve never seen anyone quite like you before
No, I’ve never met anyone quite like you before”

After several years spent in the shadows of Joy Division, “Temptation” marked New Order truly coming into their own sound. There is a little hint of melancholy during the verses, but everything else explodes into a fit of exuberance as the narrator falls head over heels after meeting several women. This is a man caught in a constant cycle, but the sonic energy focuses almost exclusively on the bubbling sense of love at first sight. This is bubblegum New Wave at its most sweetly sincere.

Though firmly a New Order track, this catches the band before their sound became densely layered. The stark division between instrumental sounds helps this stand out as one of their catchiest tracks. Every drum beat hits with uncanny synthetic force. The synth line is frantic and giddy. Bernard Sumner is at his best here, in his element as he jumps between the nervous verses and bursts of pure ecstasy. Though I have knocked his range plenty of times, few moments hit me like his delivery of the ‘oh you’ve got green eyes’ section. His everyman presentation works wonders for such a universal experience.

As a whole, “Temptation” is pure dancefloor bliss. One of the fun things about this project has been the unlikely comparisons it has brought to mind – but this and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” are excellent examples of how to take the same theme and completely change the mood. “Temptation” is young love with blinders on, a bright burst of joy that we can pretend never has to end.

64. Roy Orbison – “Crying” (1961)
from the album Crying

Key lyrics:
“I love you even more
Than I did before
But, darling, what can I do?”

Though Roy Orbison’s “Crying” obviously has backing instrumentation, the greatness of this song rests almost entirely within Orbison’s voice. This is one of those powerhouse performances showcasing such a strong range that it becomes era-defining. For the first half, Orbison sings in his ordinary style, which is familiar but still impressive. But by the second half, he is absolutely wailing at times, shifting between highs and lows at will. His voice warbles through so many words, a perfect simulation of the crying he is describing. “Crying” is a perfect example of the human voice as an emotive instrument.

While it is easy to heap praise upon artists who use lyrics to tell complex stories or throw out a dozen clever phrases, there is also something noteworthy about keeping things so simple that the vocalist is left to evoke the true meaning. Like Mitski’s “Nobody” or Pixies’ “Hey,” so much of this song’s strength is in the creative repetition of a single word. ‘Crying’ may have two syllables, but rarely is that enough for Orbison. Though his first uses of the word are standard, if occasionally drawn out for emphasis, the next section finds him shooting up and down his range with each extra use. After a certain point, the word itself disappears inside his almost onomatopoeia-like delivery. By the climax, he just keeps pushing to another level.

Breakup songs typically need something extra for me to care – an underexplored emotion, some unique instrumentation that serves as the actual backbone of the song. Part of this is because these themes are so common that they can immediately read as generic. The other part is that “Crying” expresses the act of despairing over a breakup so perfectly that anyone covering the same ground has stiff competition.

63. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power” (1989)
from the albums Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Fear of a Black Planet

Key lyrics:
“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”

Public Enemy represent a significant turning point in the hip hop scene. Though their musical stylings share a similar sound to the hardcore scene that was being taken over by gangster rap, their lyrics took on a wider view of society. Instead of focusing on local matters or personal conflict, Public Enemy tackle the systemic issues that have kept black people down. Though far from the first politically-minded hip hop group, it is Public Enemy’s specific combination of these themes and hardcore production that has served as a blueprint for so many acts that followed. Their sound is bare rage.

“Fight the Power” has an additional complexity brought on by its origins as a movie theme song. In this specific case, the song had to be designed for a character to be constantly blaring it on a boom box. The song is built upon an insistent sample, an aggressive noise that marks the entire song as a unified whole. It has an anthemic quality, telling the listener they can and should change things.

But even as an ordinary Public Enemy song, this finds the interplay between Chuck D and Flavor Flav at its height. Just take the opening line, where Flavor Flav starts things off by saying the year, only for Chuck D to join him after the first two syllables and then continue alone through the rest of the line. Though Flavor Flav is frequently used as pure exclamation on a lot of their tracks, the frequent bursts where he reinforces Chuck D on “Fight the Power” give an unbelievable energy. With an unforgettable sample, explosive delivery, and some killer lyrics, “Fight the Power” hits just as hard thirty years on.

62. Chris Isaak – “Wicked Game” (1989)
from the album Heart Shaped World

Key lyrics:
“Nobody loves no one”

Roy Orbison could be considered one of the most singular voices in popular music, if not for the fact that Chris Isaak does such a perfect imitation. “Wicked Game” plays like a classic Orbison track being given the sensuous freedom of a later era, layered with a disarmingly dark mood provided by a distinct sliding note on the lead guitar. This is passion at its most extreme, a man caught up in a love he cannot handle.

What makes “Wicked Game” as compelling as the best Orbison tracks is how it plays against a distinctly modern sound. Orbison’s style of crooning seems emblematic of a particular era of pop music, where instrumentation took a backseat to vocals. Isaak instead plays himself against a guitar that could easily steal the spotlight. His insistently drawn out notes force a certain restraint on the guitar – the song has to be structured around sustaining sounds as Isaak belts it out. The result is something like a mellow surf rock, a twanging sound that can play to its own rhythm while Isaak emphasizes every word.

The result is a heartbroken love song too cool to be cheesy. The guitar oozes with enough force that the fact this song is commonly considered ‘soft rock’ can be easy to forget. In fact, “Wicked Game” seems to exist at the intersection of half a dozen styles, but Chris Isaak makes such a perfect fusion that it all goes down easy. By bridging a gap between distinct eras, “Wicked Game” created its own timelessness.

61. FKA twigs – “Two Weeks” (2014)
from the album LP1

Key lyrics:
“Pull out the incisor, give me two weeks, you won’t recognize her”

Crude sex songs have been a staple of popular music for several decades now. “Two Weeks” is about as vulgar as they come, yet FKA twigs elevates her sound to a state of pure elegance. Where she commonly casts herself in a vulnerable light, “Two Weeks” finds her instead playing a sex goddess. In fact, she plays it up so well her confidence suggests a sad delusion – there is a painful desperation here beneath all the direct demands. “Two Weeks” rides on that contradiction, a woman showcasing her sexuality while the subject of her affection is himself in a vulnerable state – can what she has truly be called power?

“Two Weeks” is all about sustained sounds. A droning synth-line sets the scene which crescendos during the chorus. FKA twigs emphasizes every syllable. A rolling snare drum adds a bit more force but settles into its own pattern. These sounds are always moving toward a boiling point, whether it be during the chorus or the pulsating bridge. FKA twigs rolls away from that boiling point with ease, keeping us in a constant cycle of build-up that never quite relieves our tension – a great effect for what could pass as a siren song.

Even on a straightforward level, “Two Weeks” excels as a burst of female empowerment. FKA twigs has flipped the roles of a song form largely dominated by men and does it with feminine grace. It’s not that she plays coy – not with those lyrics – but that she manages to be sexy while simultaneously demanding respect. In essence, FKA twigs has taken the central innuendo of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” but placed herself on the pedestal.

60. Joy Division – “Transmission” (1979)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio”

On a surface level, Joy Division’s breakthrough single sounds like their most positive song. A propulsive rhythm makes it a genuine post-punk dance track, and the chorus encourages that movement. Yet as Ian Curtis repeats that line, almost demanding that we dance, there is an anxious tension in his delivery. The lyrics are not a self-referential acknowledgement of the song’s own enchanting sound, but rather a mad swipe at our cultural tendency to use art as escapism. To dance to the radio is to conform.

It is easy to look past Curtis’s dire lyrics and just enjoy the song for itself – which perhaps reinforces his point. That opening bassline provides the perfect thunder for the other instruments to crash in with a frenetic energy. Curtis’s cold vocals provide a contrast point, the music sounding so lively around him. His frantic delivery during the third verse only adds to the sense of motion.

Of course, his complaints about music being used as a distraction do not contradict the primal strengths of this song. Rather, it can be taken to mean that we should have more considerations for the art we consume, and also that this art should be made with that higher thought in mind. “Transmission” does not necessarily include itself in its critique – as a breakthrough song, Joy Division could not have gone into its creation expecting a radio hit. The true genius of Joy Division is how they managed to balance such heavy subject matter with an accessible sound – the type of music that should be played on the radio.

59. Radiohead – “Paranoid Android” (1997)
from the album OK Computer

Key lyrics:
“When I am king
You will be first against the wall”

Though not the most famous Radiohead track, “Paranoid Android” is easily the most definitive – this is a song that explores nearly every inch of the band’s sound. Like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” before it, “Paranoid Android” transitions between several distinct segments, all capturing a significant mood. While starting with the same spacey sound that defines much of OK Computer, it soon dives into a hard guitar rocker. The song then hits the brakes, Thom Yorke singing with several layers far above a downtempo beat.

The key to “Paranoid Android” is it lets these sequences play out for extended periods, and all three are just as engaging separately as they are together. The opening does more to establish an atmosphere than to play to traditional rock elements, though the riffs are nevertheless iconic. This is the segment that showcases Radiohead as the great experimenters of the 90s. While the middle sequence is more traditional, it is a perfect tension builder. The guitar part is unfathomably cool, first acting to support Thom Yorke’s aggressive rambling before shooting even higher on its own. The transition into the next sequence is so vital, as if the guitar is pushing so hard that it gives out entirely.

Rock rhapsodies can live and die by their quietest segment; nothing is worse than getting into a groove and being spit out onto something that loses all energy. “Paranoid Android” is so successful because its slow finale takes on the atmosphere of a sweeping epic. Though sonically similar to some of their lighter songs, this sequence benefits by carrying over the earlier tension, resulting in an experience like sitting before a mad god. Tying everything together, the guitar rockets back in. Exemplifying the juxtaposition, the same sound that provided tension after the second section transforms into a cathartic release after the third.

58. Pixies – “Hey” (1989)
from the album Doolittle

Key lyrics:
“We’re chained”

While Pixies covered a lot of stylistic ground, their signature sound typically involved mixing quiet and loud sequences. “Hey” is thus one of those odd tracks that is unusual in its ordinary structure. But this is not a case of a band momentarily shedding their own sound to try something new – what “Hey” lacks in aggression is made up by Black Francis’s bizarre delivery. This is a love song through a corrupted lens.

Instrumentally, “Hey” is a smooth, low tempo track dominated by a groovy bassline. Much of the sound is sparse, the drums not coming in until the first verse closes. The guitar begins to wail partway through the chorus, a domineering sound that does more to amp up the tension than the volume. The following section uses quiet space perfectly, the signature bassline left with nothing but a soft cymbal patter. The understated guitar solo that follows sets up Black Francis to delve into a poignant bout of Pixies oddity. He grunts his way through several sexual encounters, connecting that grunt to a mother giving birth. It paints a desperately depressing picture of a loveless yet functioning relationship.

Most striking is the chorus, the way it uses a single phrase and lets it simmer to a boiling point. At first, Black Francis sings alone, stressing the syllables of ‘chained’ several different ways. Kim Deal begins to echo that word, but in a simple monotone. Combined with the wailing guitar, these two words start to ooze with emotion. Pixies’ off-kilter delivery helps sell the grimy nature of love in stagnation.

57. Daft Punk – “Da Funk” (1995)
from the album Homework

Daft Punk have no need for words. Even without a human voice, “Da Funk” is as expressive as popular music gets. With this early single, the duo shot from the gate, showcasing their ability to mix and match a small handful of sounds to generate an endlessly changing soundscape. The woozy synthesizers and distant beats create an atmosphere both sinister and mysterious.

Though these electronic sounds are distinctly mechanical, the synth-line that opens the song bubbles about with a sense of curiosity. To me, this synth-line is the “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or “You Really Got Me” riff equivalent of the electronic scene. It’s so singularly evocative that little else can compare. Finding that magical sound, Daft Punk simply needed to build a song around it. They went beyond that, creating a beat with so much empty space that the silence between becomes its own force anytime the drum machine plays alone. That lead synth-line is designed to slither about, subtly snaking back into the mix at several points. A more rapid-fire synth-line develops over the course of the song, adding tension to an already anxious song. The final mix of everything together is as overwhelming as it is articulate – the production is so crisp that nothing is lost in the chaos.

With all these powerful elements, “Da Funk” is a dance track without a single dominating groove, only linked together by an ever-present bass note. Daft Punk’s brand of house music is so effective because they immediately deconstruct themselves. Some songs are better than the sum of their parts. “Da Funk” eschews that notion entirely – Daft Punk’s calculations involve as much subtraction as addition.

56. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy” (1994)
from the album Ready to Die

Key lyrics:
“Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood
And it’s still all good”

On this five minute track, The Notorious B.I.G. covers a whole lot of ground. Born in 1972, he was at just the right age to see the birth and early evolution of hip hop. As he reflects on his upbringing, the history of hip hop is naturally intertwined. Few songs have ever been such a convincing love letter to their own influences.

Yet the more personal aspects keep me coming back. Contrasting the gangster rap scene, “Juicy” is a celebratory burst of self-affirmation. This is the story of a man who appears in genuine awe of his own success. There is no sense of braggadocio to this story. Rather, Biggie Smalls lets those who hurt him off the hook while simply enjoying the ease of his new life. As he covers the troubles of his youth, it is clear he intends this as an inspirational piece, to encourage others like him to strive to succeed. Even as he delves into his extravagant life, he always ties it back to the elements he escaped.

This song hits especially hard considering Biggie’s brief life. To think I have already outlived him by four years sometimes leaves me overwhelmed. With Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain, I can recognize the internal struggles reflected in their music; their deaths, though tragic, at least fit some awful narrative. To hear “Juicy” and recognize it as a young man celebrating a life he once viewed as impossible makes his death all the more difficult to accept. But this tragedy makes “Juicy” a poignant reminder to celebrate what we have in the moment.

55. Sharon Van Etten – “Seventeen” (2019)
from the album Remind Me Tomorrow

Key lyrics:
“I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown”

Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen” is a masterful slow build. The song opens with a hint of her typical indie folk rock sound, leaning a bit harder into the rock but still familiar ground. A faint synth-line whirs in the background, mixed just low enough to barely register and be overtaken by the drums. Her words are a bittersweet nostalgia trip, reflecting on the common mix of youthful self-idealization and loneliness. She speaks of the past as a time of freedom, but the lines she fills in between suggest a higher tension.

The guitar rips to life halfway through, a gnarly rebirth of the anxiety-laced synth-line that had subtly faded and now returned. After a brief interlude, Van Etten matches the growing instrumental tension, shouting her way through the next several lines. This sequence is a victory cry – though she was at first idealizing her past self, she recognizes that she has grown into a better woman. The drums pick up on her energy, creating a Springsteen-style cathartic burst. As the song approaches its end, the synth-line encroaches and takes over all else; though consisting of familiar elements, the chaotic electronics over a heartland rocker forms something inexplicably empowering.

The range of emotions Van Etten conveys over this heightened piece floors me. This is a wave of hope in the face of a self-inflicted sense of disappointment. The dawning realization of the bridge – that there is no ideal moment of self – is the freedom she laments losing. By the end, she coldly pushes her younger self away, not as a rejection of the past but an embracement of her current state. The roaring synth-line might be abrasive, but Van Etten leaves the song with more power than when she started.

54. Eddie Cochran – “Summertime Blues” (1958)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations”

“Summertime Blues” is an extraordinarily simple song. The simplicity is part of the enduring charm – this is a track that feels emblematic of rock and roll at large. It is presented with the same youthful energy that would dominate the punk scene a couple decades on, a preeminent example of popular music as an expression of teenage angst. Cochran’s problems feel as slight as they are hopeless. People idealize their youth, but “Summertime Blues” is a perfect reminder that it is a time dominated by other’s whims.

Cochran’s delivery granted him a striking sense of personality that few rock stars of that era pulled off. The song repeatedly comes to a stop as he bellows out insulting phrases from adult figures in the most mocking tone he can manage. These instrumental pauses help highlight the simple yet frantic strums. Later lines accentuate his naïve yet fitting perspective, calling upon the United Nations and U.S. senators to handle his monetary woes. Though he might be overstating things by a degree, it perfectly represents the dire feeling of being an actual teenager. What “Summertime Blues” lacks in depth is made up in its truth.

Though each part might be simple, the whole of “Summertime Blues” is ridiculously catchy. That rolling bassline gives a perfect groove, and the handclaps add a youthful energy. The lead guitar is as forceful as it is insistent. Though rock would add several layers of complexity as it evolved, “Summertime Blues” remains a perfect encapsulation of rock and roll in its rawest form.

53. Fela Kuti – “Zombie” (1976)
from the album Zombie

Key lyrics:
“Zombie no go think, unless you tell ‘em to think”

“Zombie” is perhaps the oddest song I can cite as essential in the development of my musical tastes. Alongside a dozen indie and alternative rock acts, this stray Afrobeat track got me to pursue music as its own distinct hobby. Up until the late 2000s, most of my music listening was dominated by video game soundtracks. 2008 was the year that changed everything, seeing the release of both Rock Band 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV. Between those two games, I (re)discovered Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, LCD Soundsystem, Sonic Youth; I never even paid Bob Dylan much attention until playing “Tangled Up in Blue” a dozen times in Rock Band. But the Grand Theft Auto series is truly special in its commitment to dedicating a few in-game radio stations to more obscure genres.

“Zombie” was the perfect choice for a game where the player spends half their time racing through the streets. This is a twelve minute epic of marching rhythms and forceful horns, dedicating itself entirely to crafting a sense of motion. It opened my eyes to a world of music I had never imagined, slowly pushing me to reach outside my comfort zone of rock and roll.

Outside of this personal influence, Fela Kuti truly perfected a singular sound. “Zombie” is like jazz at full force with a funky edge, tied together by communal chanting. Fela Kuti plays the commander, shouting bitterly sarcastic orders. This is a song with purpose, a political statement so effective that it caused a military strike in response. The fact this song has an actual body count marks it as a key piece in art as an act of resistance. But more than anything, the experience of listening is absolutely enthralling. “Zombie” dashes through its epic length like no time has passed.

52. The Velvet Underground – “Sweet Jane” (1970)
from the album Loaded

Key lyrics:
“But anyone who ever had a heart
Oh, they wouldn’t turn around and break it”

After creating two of the most experimental albums in rock during the late-60s, The Velvet Underground mellowed out after John Cale left the band. “Sweet Jane” is a simple pop rock tune, the type that proves its grand experimenters did, in fact, know how to make typically pleasant music and simply had bigger ideas to prove. As far as pop rock goes, this is simply one of the best.

Lou Reed was an unusual lead for a rock band. “Sweet Jane” helped bring his chill attitude to the front. It turned out that, when not singing about heroin or sex dungeons, Reed gives off a neighborly warmth. He sings about two subjects as a distant observer with an almost monotonous amble. Here and there, Reed inserts key exclamations, as if his typically cold demeanor cannot restrain the warmth of the scene he is describing. His low energy performance sets up an explosive third verse, where he turns his sights on the ‘evil mothers’ who try to paint the world as a dire place. His impassioned delivery hits so much harder after being taught to think of him as cool and collected, a burst of sincerity from an unexpected source.

The simple structure of the instrumentation is a large part of the appeal. It has been covered numerous times, and one could easily argue the Cowboy Junkies did it better. The key to making a simple song last is all in the performance. Reed imbues “Sweet Jane” with a mirthful energy, joyous while acknowledging a world-weary view. If their earlier work was a journey through the myriad taboo subjects people pursue to find inner peace, “Sweet Jane” is their message distilled – to make your own happiness in this world.

51. King Crimson – “21st Century Schizoid Man” (1969)
from the album In the Court of the Crimson King

Key lyrics:
“Nothing he’s got he really needs”

To simply label “21st Century Schizoid Man” a progressive rock track misses out on its most definitive element. After a bigger than life opening, King Crimson descend into an extended jazz-rock jam session. Now, jazz and rock are such expansive genres that few combinations come out the same. This particular version resonates because it pulls from the most chaotic brand of jazz. This is as fiery as Mingus’s most brutal pieces, all while letting the typical rock instruments play their part. Most rock songs pull from the blues, making this a perfect window into a world where jazz instead served as a central foundation.

“21st Century Schizoid Man” has two distinct spirits, yet they never lose track of each other. By returning to the opening section, the instrumental break serves as an extended bridge. The finale erupts from this section as if nothing has happened, bigger and louder than when it started. The vocal sections are the polar opposite of the instrumental break, drawing out notes for grand emphasis. The juxtaposition of the two makes a truly intimidating atmosphere – to be confronted with a self-assured madman, tossed into the abyss, only to be dragged back out again. Both chaos and structure are used for violence.

Many progressive rock tracks immediately age themselves – our visions of the future tend to be marked by the time those visions took place. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” however, has grown more impressive with age. The distorted vocals conjure up a mad general, but the particular battleground could be any moment in time or space. With so few bands pursuing this mix of jazz and rock, nothing has supplanted it. Many bands chase after a cool image, only for one generation’s idea of cool to become dorky to the next. “21st Century Schizoid Man” speaks to such a pervasive idea to have never lost its cool.

My Top 250 Songs Part 7 (#100-76)

100. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “Bellbottoms” (1994)
from the album Orange

When we talk about great works of art, there is an overemphasis of the influencers at the expense of the experimenters. Those who arrive first garner more attention than those who perfect. In many cases, the originators are exceptional – no one would follow directly in their footsteps if what they stumbled upon did not work. But what always captures my attention are the artists who, seeing the ever-evolving music scene, fuse together such a specific sound that it denies the possibility of influence. Bands like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion exist at a very specific extreme – “Bellbottoms” may be classified as a punk blues song, but that reads as an approximation. Too much is going on here to be meaningfully classified.

“Bellbottoms” is a song in motion. The opening very much evokes the downtempo expectations of a ‘punk blues’ track, though a gliding string backdrop hints at the impending sonic insanity. This is not exactly an instrumental piece, but Jon Spencer works more as an announcer than a vocalist. About a third of the way through, the bassline picks up a bit more intensity as a wall of screaming takes over, only for the music to stop entirely as Jon Spencer addresses the audience. From this point on, the song erupts into a psychotic jam session, always ramping up its frenetic energy. After a certain point, genre indicators lose meaning – “Bellbottoms” is the traditional rock arrangement distilled into a raw force. Blues Explosion is an apt name, as “Bellbottoms” feels like a musical Big Bang using blues as the spark.

99. Pigbag – “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” (1981)
non-album single

Dance-punk is an odd genre to discuss. The names that usually come to mind, such as LCD Soundsystem or The Rapture, would perhaps be better labelled as dance-punk revivalists. At the same time, the name might as well be a retronym. The stray tracks that make up the early hits in the genre feel more like one-offs than a unified sound – prominent post-punk bands like Gang of Four and The Clash simply strayed close to dance music occasionally, while bands more explicitly committed to the style like ESG and Liquid Liquid never had more than a few hits. As such, a song like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” gained new meaning over time. Like “Bellbottoms,” it merges half a dozen stray sonic elements. However, you can see connective tissue stretching between Pigbag and so many odd future acts.

“Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” is far more than just dance and punk. This is a track dominated by conga drums and ska-style horns. Though it frequently returns to the same definitive riff, there are also several breakdowns and unpredictable turns. The sax and horns occasionally skitter around each other, creating a riotous discord. Linking this all together is one of the grooviest basslines in rock. In fact, its link to punk might be the most tenuous element of its existence. But even as a pure instrumental, this rocks the DIY aesthetic, its chaotic patterns suggesting a group who simply picked up a bunch of instruments without too much practice and went all out.

98. Orange Juice – “Rip It Up” (1982)
from the album Rip It Up

Key lyrics:
“I hope to god you’re not as dumb as you make out
I hope to god (I hope to god)
And I hope to god I’m not as numb as you make out
I hope to god (I hope to god)”

“Rip It Up” is a quintessential New Wave song that could easily fade into the pack – it is a song that plays so well to its genre that it risks being labelled generic. But there is a coyness in its presentation, both in its instrumentation and vocal delivery, that has slowly grown on me over the years. The electronic bass that opens the song, the first hit to use a 303, is bubbly, almost queasy. The odd inflection of the 303 would become a definitive element within electronic music, but “Rip It Up” is among the rare tracks to combine it with otherwise traditional instruments. This creates a layer of artifice that makes “Rip It Up” as off-putting as it is enticing.

Edwyn Collins’ vocal stylings are similarly uneasy. There is a certain bravado to his voice, and several lines find him rapidly descending to a guttural bellow. Backing vocals mix so well at certain points that Collins sounds thrice as large. These backing vocals occasionally split apart as well, a contrast suggesting these voices are many and one at once. The effect is something illusory, made all the more confounding by the relative accessibility of the overall sound.

Not everything that defines “Rip It Up” is unusual – the saxophone solo is traditional yet stellar. But the overall bounciness of this track refuses to take off; as Collins sings about the sinking feeling of falling for someone, the song simply warbles. Orange Juice make all these odd choices to create a sonic simulation of love-struck anxiety.

97. Big Star – “Thirteen” (1972)
from the album #1 Record

Key lyrics:
“Would you be an outlaw for my love?”

Mocking our early teenage years comes easy. It is a time dominated by pubescent discoveries and big feelings too complex to express in our childhood vocabularies. Most people I know would rather erase these particular memories than linger on them. Big Star, on the other hand, wrote a loving ode to this awkward moment of growing up. With a melancholy tone, Alex Chilton retraces the mundane details of a first love. It is with utmost respect that he reflects upon misguided declarations. Though his narrator knows little about making a relationship work, Chilton remembers the dire passion of youth. Our first loves are almost doomed by design, but Big Star capture the numbing gravitas of going through it.

“Thirteen” benefits greatly from specific imagery. Lines about getting tickets for the dance put us in the moment, bridging any distance created by Chilton’s age as a vocalist. A line where he asks his love to share his opinion about The Rolling Stones to impress her father is profound in its depiction of childhood innocence and misunderstandings. Others might look upon these memories with embarrassment, but Big Star frame it as an essential part of the human experience.

The structure of the song is essential to its nostalgic atmosphere. The simple acoustic guitar adds an air of innocence, while short bursts of harmonies draw out the emotion. The guitar solo halfway through keeps down to earth, simple and clean in its effect. Throughout, there is an ever-so-subtle change in tempo, suggesting a growing unease in the narrator. “Thirteen” is a stunningly graceful depiction of an awkward but defining time in our lives.

96. Nick Drake – “Pink Moon” (1972)
from the album Pink Moon

Key lyrics:
“And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all”

“Pink Moon” is almost too simple. Other than a brief piano, this short song is nothing more than Nick Drake and an acoustic guitar. At the same time, it feels impenetrable – what, exactly, is a pink moon, and does it present a threat or enlightenment? The energy is positive if not quite optimistic; is Drake awaiting this change, or has he blissfully accepted the end? Nick Drake is a complex figure, but what I know for certain is the comfort I find in this piece.

Nick Drake has an unusual warmth in his voice, even as he mumbles through the delivery – I cannot parse the first line without checking the lyrics. Though lacking the chamber folk complexities of “River Man,” “Pink Moon” still feels like it’s coming from an alternate timeline. Here, he is a mad prophet who has seen too much from the other side, delivering a message we cannot grasp. And though it is clear he has journeyed to a dark place, there is peace in his company.

That brief piano does a lot of emotional lifting. It is lighter than air, a moment of pure beauty in a song otherwise lost within so many conflicting emotions. At a little over two minutes, “Pink Moon” is straight to the point and a testament to the value of ordinary folk music. Nick Drake was a man who struggled with direct expression, and “Pink Moon” reveals how much can be said through the sound of music. No clear words are necessary for “Pink Moon” to make me feel something enormous.

95. Spiritualized – “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” (1997)
from the album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

Key lyrics:
“All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away”

“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” starts simply enough. At first, Jason Pierce sings along to a low tempo take on “Pachelbel’s Canon.” But as he repeats this opening line, another version of his voice comes in singing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The crinkling audio and a satellite beep suggest this second voice is an astronaut drifting in space. A wider array of instruments get added as we enter a third verse, where yet another voice is layered atop the others. The three vocals weave in and out of the forefront, helping form a dizzying, hypnotic experience. Buried deep beneath everything else is yet another verse which never takes the center stage.

The massive layering here conceptually sounds like it should create a cacophony. But due to its strong mixing, “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” operates as a monolithic round. This is the rare song that captures the magic of The Beach Boys’ greatest hits, a wall of sound and human voices that works despite everything suggesting otherwise. Each layer is crisp enough that you can follow its trail deep inside, yet everything works better together.

Spiritualized are doing a lot more than showing off their technical capabilities. By combining baroque with classic rock and space age ambience, their choice of references suggests timelessness. This is not one love song but every love song at the same time. Sometimes, falling in love feels so immense that nothing can represent it alone. This song condenses all of time and space to suggest that love can be bigger than life.

94. The Flaming Lips – “Do You Realize??” (2002)
from the album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Key lyrics:
“Do you realize
That you have the most beautiful face?”

There are a handful of songs that simply roll over my emotions every time I listen. “Do You Realize??” is a prime example, a song that begins as a loving address only for the narrator to become overwhelmed by our place in the universe and the fleeting passage of time. There are plenty of love songs and plenty of existential songs about death, but “Do You Realize??” manages the impossible task of covering both grounds at once. The curvature of the song is essential to its message; by opening and closing with the same line, The Flaming Lips make a grand statement. At first, there is a suggestion of insignificance – how can anyone think about love when everything is ultimately so meaningless? But right at the end, love is given as the answer to make all these big ideas bearable.

“Do You Realize??” starts loud, almost celebratory. For the first several lines, Wayne Coyne really plays up the love song aspects. The transition into deathly topics does not occur as a bomb drop but instead a shuddered whisper. At its highest moment, Coyne says nothing beyond the title – words cannot capture the heightened state of pondering everything at once. As he then repeats his deathly pondering, many of the instruments grow quiet, leaving us floating with his words. What ultimately blows me away is the flurry of emotions this sends me. Even in the times when it has reduced me to a sobbing mess, there has always been a sense of hope underlining it all.

93. Four Tops – “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (1966)
from the album Reach Out

“Reach Out I’ll Be There” stands among Motown’s biggest hits. It also stands out among that selection due to its unusually rough edge. The lyrics here could make a standard pop tune, but the production suggests anything but. Levi Stubbs sings with a sense of desperate urgency, and this song pushes his voice to a breaking point. As he shouts these seemingly comforting phrases, the tone takes on a dire edge, as though his love is dangling so precariously that this might be their last chance.

Holland-Dozier-Holland reached a high with this song. The trio fused together numerous distinct styles, intentionally evoking Bob Dylan by forcing Stubbs into his strained shout while taking disparate genre influences to separate the verses and chorus. As the song shifts from a minor to major key, it generates tension instead of relief. This is another love song at an extreme, simulating the panic of uncertainty as you watch a lover stumble. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” absolutely oozes with unease.

Though changing up the Motown sound, this is far from a deconstruction. The Four Tops were excellent performers, and the backing harmonies bring this together. Like an inversed “Where Did Our Love Go,” the backing vocalists lend an air of hope to counter Stubbs’ desperation. The chorus is a masterwork, balancing the tension perfectly. The lead vocals could have suggested something a whole lot darker on their own – a man shouting his love tends to be a scary sight. But the bliss of the harmonies reinforces his good intentions. The construction of this song appears as precarious as a house of cards, yet the final result is an unforgettable and haunting classic.

92. Kraftwerk – “The Model” (1978)
from the album The Man-Machine

Key lyrics:
“It only takes a camera to change her mind”

Throughout their career, Kraftwerk have made songs about roadways and trains and robots and pocket calculators. It should come as no surprise that their one hit with a human subject is somehow among their coldest productions. “The Model” is a light take on the stalker genre, framed as a photographer who can’t forget a model who has since hit it big. Kraftwerk’s typical vocal monotony grows genuinely uneasy while discussing a human woman.

The central synth-line bubbles up and down with every word, dominating a wide space between each line. This interplay between voice and synthesizer is a definitive turn. Before The Man-Machine, their work could be classified as an early form of general electronic music. They featured vocals, but largely as atmospheric scene setting rather than a lead part. While shifting their focus to a person, it is clear that Kraftwerk turned to a more human sound. With the structure of a dance track, “The Model” helped lay the foundation for synth-pop.

Their more strictly electronic sensibilities linger on this track, the sections between verses going off on extended tangents before returning to the central structure. “The Model” acts as a rare, distinct bridge between two eras – but it plays to the best of both worlds. The instrumental sections suggest curiosity about the ever-changing world, while the vocals capture a sickening idea of how little changes about human nature as technology evolves. It is detached, but only to highlight the crudeness of the narrator. There is a bright and shiny world outside, but some have nothing better to do than lust after someone they will never see again.

91. Stevie Wonder – “Living for the City” (1973)
from the album Innervisions

Key lyrics:
“His father works some days for fourteen hours
And you can bet he barely makes a dollar”

“Living for the City” is Stevie Wonder’s sprawling, dystopic epic. The lyrics tell of a poor young black man who tries to escape the south, only to find similar hardship in the city. The early verses paint a stunning image of his family, the promise of the city acting as a beacon of hope. The middle takes a sharp turn, as the man arrives and is subsequently framed and arrested. Wonder’s vision of America is as bleak as they come – for black people, there is no safe haven. The closing verse is a desperate plea – this can change, but we must act swiftly and with care.

The instrumentation matches the massive narrative scale. Wonder himself played all the instruments and delivers all the vocals aside from the spoken interlude. Wonder really shows his vocal chops here, adding layer upon layer during the bridge until he is a one-man funk collective. His vocals beyond the interlude section find him singing with a hoarse croak, elevating the already desperate lyrics to a true nightmare. The layered vocals surrounding this sequence help form an incomparable climax.

The electronic soundscape similarly casts this as a key moment in popular music. Wonder suggests the same monolithic, futurized version of modern life that Kraftwerk would soon embody. For “Living in the City,” this glossy production is a sinister lure – the extended spoken sequence absolutely shatters the illusion, revealing all the grit hiding just beneath the surface. By briefly shedding his typically uplifting nature, Wonder managed to craft a poignant masterpiece.

90. TV on the Radio – “Wolf Like Me” (2006)
from the album Return to Cookie Mountain

Key lyrics:
“Baby doll, I recognize
You’re a hideous thing inside”

As I have dived through these favorite songs of mine, a consistent thread has been high audio clarity. No matter the genre, most bands want their listeners to make out the specific sounds. “Wolf Like Me” exists in murkier water. Each element of this song is mixed closely together, and the guitar feedback adds an element of light static that blurs the line between sounds. In this form, TV on the Radio make it difficult to look at “Wolf Like Me” as anything but a cohesive whole. This is like an inverted Wall of Sound, using an ever-present noise to reduce the soundscape. Even on the finest speakers, this song refuses to shake the aesthetic of a poorly-tuned radio.

The song beneath this distortion is suitably grimy. The singsong vocals are difficult to discern without close attention, especially with several unusual phrases thrown into the mix. The few lines that can be picked up on with ease paint a lusty picture. More important than the words is their ceaseless delivery, like listening to a madman ramble.

Despite all these noisy layers, “Wolf Like Me” still falls into a distinct groove. With the guitar playing like white noise, the other elements take a more central part. With our attention forced to the rhythm, this operates as a most unlikely dance song. The bridge is essential, the static momentarily fading while the vocals maintain an uneasy edge. This sets up for an even messier finale as the distortion returns with more intensity. “Wolf Like Me” plays dirty, a peculiar track that nevertheless keeps pulling me back to parse its bizarre construction.

89. Paul Simon – “Graceland” (1986)
from the album Graceland

Key lyrics:
“And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart”

The rhythm on “Graceland” is bouncy in a way I have rarely encountered. Nearly every song creates a sense of motion, of course, but most work in a predictable manner. “Graceland” is not a particularly complex song, but the irregular clap every other bar creates a back and forth energy. It matches the subject matter perfectly, like riding a bus over a bumpy road. On an album experimenting with world music, “Graceland” might just be the most ordinary song – yet it acts like a thesis statement, treating Elvis Presley’s estate like the heart of American music before contemplating other hearts. This is the song where Simon perfects his own craft to justify stepping beyond.

Though the central arrangement is standard, the choice of instruments sets it apart. Little details are added throughout – the bit that always hits me is how part of the percussion sounds like cannon fire after the second verse. There is an incomparable fullness to this sound as everything comes together.

Though featuring beautiful lyrics, Paul Simon manages to say a lot through absence. Outside of a few mentions of Memphis, Tennessee, there are no explicit details of the location. Simon therefore forces a double meaning, making Graceland a literal and spiritual place. He has no need to clarify that his holy land is the estate of a rock star; should it not be obvious his religion is music? Though weaving a tale about pilgrims, this is truly a celebration of music itself. Even as a lover leaves, Simon knows music will be his saving grace.

88. Brian Eno – “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” (1974)
from the album Here Come the Warm Jets

Key lyrics:
“Why ask why?”

As a producer, Brian Eno helped shape the modern music scene. Working with acts like David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2, he assisted in forming larger than life soundscapes. His own career is a bit more obscure. He is perhaps best known for popularizing ambient music during his later career, but he kicked things off in the glam scene. But even then, Brian Eno feels less like a rock star than a producer trying to push the boundaries of popular music. “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” certainly has the vocal hallmarks of a glam song, but the mixing pushes it into uncharted territory.

The dense instrumentation is relentless; listening to “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” is like drowning in sound. Though Eno is a perfectly capable vocalist, he mixes himself like just another instrument. While playing to the very specific glam aesthetic, Eno instead lays out an aggressive prototype to his ambient developments. He simply accomplishes this while using plenty of guitars and bass. The multi-layered sound makes it difficult to discern every individual piece, resulting in a singular focus like rock had rarely seen before – where bands like The Beach Boys kept every detail of their Wall of Sound crisp, Eno seeks to overwhelm.

As such, “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” can be an unpleasant experience at first. It honestly took me ages to properly digest any of Eno’s early solo output. But, over time, I have come to appreciate him as a man who views music as a sonic playground. “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” is such a striking deconstruction of glam rock that I find myself returning to it more often than most traditional works in the genre.

87. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl” (2016)
from the album Puberty 2

Key lyrics:
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me
But I do, I finally do”

“Your Best American Girl” starts so quietly that I instinctually pump up the volume before processing what song came on. This is an effective enough trick that two other songs in my top 100 do the same. Yet the quiet beginning here plays a more meaningful part in the context of the lyrics. With a Japanese mother and American father, Mitski struggled to find her place in the world. This quiet beginning is an elegant method of representing her sense of lacking a voice.

As the song progresses through the first two verses, the volume slowly grows louder. Her lyrics focus more on her lover than herself, only undercutting her place in the relationship. The instrumentation plays a huge part, starting off with an acoustic guitar alone. The drums come in right as she closes out the first verse. After a slow build, Mitski skips directly to the payoff with the chorus. The acoustic guitar is replaced with a grunge-worthy electric riff. Continuing to play with volume, Mitski briefly pulls back for the bridge, only to again unleash a wall of noise upon us.

The slight turn in lyrics is just as powerful. At first, Mitski only thinks she approves of her mother. By the end, she firmly asserts her approval. “Your Best American Girl” is all about finding one’s voice, and every inch of it reinforces that idea. Yet after all this noise, Mitski saves her final punch for the quieting outro. She again expresses her doubt, the acoustic guitar returning to close everything out. This is a powerful anthem for self-acceptance, but Mitski acknowledges that true acceptance is a process.

86. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta” (2015)
from the album To Pimp a Butterfly

Key lyrics:
“I swore I wouldn’t tell
But most of ya’ll sharing bars
Like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”

Kendrick Lamar is among the most socially-minded hip hop stars, but that does not mean he is above the occasional rap braggadocio. “King Kunta” finds him returning to the industry criticism of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” this time turning his sights on certain unnamed contemporaries. This captures the bombastic sound of “Backseat Freestyle,” but where that earlier song was ironic, Kendrick uses it here to absolutely drag his targets across concrete. When Kendrick steps back to boast, you know he means it – though he has more meaningful topics to explore, songs like “King Kunta” show he can play the game better than anyone.

The production here is top-notch, built around a slick funk groove. Female back-up singers add a playful quality, echoing certain phrases to emphasize the mocking nature. After the opening minute, Kendrick rarely falls into a comfort zone, letting the instruments rise with each verse. As this reaches a high point, it immediately shifts gears entirely, the backing music sounding as though it is being funneled through a distant jet. When the familiar groove returns, it is cut down by a gunshot. After another interruption, Kendrick finally lets it play out through the end. Kendrick will give us what we want, but he knows to make us wait for it while dazzling us with the unexpected.

The whole of “King Kunta” is so musically-minded that I almost neglected the excellent lyrics. Though Kendrick Lamar can churn out heartfelt narratives on par with Bob Dylan, his playful songs showcase his ability to turn a phrase. From the wordplay of ‘sharing bars’ to the complex references, “King Kunta” is such an effective boast because Kendrick plays from a higher level.

85. Kate Bush – “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” (1985)
from the album Hounds of Love

Key lyrics:
“Let me steal this moment from you now”

“Running Up That Hill” is a love song of a different caliber. Kate Bush, though apparently happy with her lover, deeply wishes to swap places so they can better understand one another. No matter the power of love, she suggests the gender roles of our society create an impenetrable barrier. In classic Kate Bush style, she turns to mysticism over a direct discussion. This vision sets the stage for a grandiose piece.

A sustained note kicks things off, serving as a heavenly backdrop throughout the song. The opening pairs a synthesizer with a drum machine. A simple arrangement, but the synth-line is striking, introspective and playful as it warbles. Kate Bush begins running immediately out the gate, layering her voice to both echo and harmonize. The song subtly evolves from there. The layered vocals grow frantic as the synth changes tone. After the bridge, an actual drum set kicks off and a guitar joins in. Both of these elements are sparsely used, popping in only to emphasize a phrase here and there. The backing vocals become a ghastly wail throughout the last two minutes. Though Bush set the scene with a bombastic electronic presence, the true strength in “Running Up That Hill” is how that bombast allows the other elements to slowly grow to life.

Kate Bush has been an enduring figure because she crafts song as flashy as they are understated. The electronic elements immediately date this, but the complex arrangement similarly marks it as a high point for the era. “Running Up That Hill” reveals that showing age can be its own form of timelessness – there is power in the ability to immediately conjure a bygone era.

84. Daft Punk – “Around the World” (1997)
from the album Homework

Repeat a word enough times and it loses all meaning. Over the length of “Around the World,” the title is said well over a hundred times. To Daft Punk, this phrase is merely another note to play. A calculated choice, this monotonous, robotic phrase dominates our attention. Like a pair of master illusionists, Daft Punk are using the art of misdirection. By keeping us so focused on this one part, their subtler shifts are allowed to wash over us. “Around the World” perfectly balances the fine line house music necessitates – to be infectiously danceable to a fault and then shift gears just enough to hold our attention.

Not the vocals but the bass defines this song. Michel Gondry perfectly captured the feeling in the iconic music video. A prolonged ascent leads into a rapid fall, only for the process to repeat as though moving ever upwards. The other instruments skitter around this central bassline. The trick here is that Daft Punk are constantly dropping the instruments in and out. “Around the World” captures what separates good DJs from the merely passable. By relying on the same segments throughout, “Around the World” has a singular identity. But Daft Punk are also exploring how different combinations work together, spending just enough time with one mix before shifting into the next.

“Around the World” has held up over the years because it plays well in two settings. As a club hit, it is the perfect type of song for zoning out and dancing – few basslines are this slick. But for those of us listening intently at home, those slight changes make an engaging experience.

83. Le Tigre – “Deceptacon” (1999)
from the album Le Tigre

Key lyrics:
“Wanna disco? Wanna see me disco?”

It is probably clear by now that I have a soft spot for dance-punk. Yet of all the dance-punk acts I love, few lean into the punk side like Le Tigre. Formed by Kathleen Hanna after her earlier band Bikini Kill fell apart, she carried her riot grrrl energy into the electroclash scene. Like other pre-2000s dance-punk acts, it is unclear whether there was any direct link between Le Tigre and its predecessors. Part of the fun of early dance-punk is how organically bands stumbled into the sound; a punk band simply has to toy with disco and it seemingly comes in a recognizable form.

Kathleen Hanna is an unsung master of punk vocals. “Deceptacon” contains disarmingly bratty delivery, a type of rough mocking that can turn any song into a sonic assault. Yet she also suggests a playful side – her vicious lines are clearly tearing into someone specific. The song is played at a frenetic speed, yet the minimal soundscape leaves a chill atmosphere. This leaves room for the guitar to occasionally shred to life, an uncommon presence that dominates any moment where it appears.

The simple yet fast beat makes this a perfect club song. Hanna’s vocals work just as well on the dance side of things. She quotes a largely forgotten doo-wop spoof, her rhythmic delivery taking a purely sonic form. These bursts help emphasize the beat. “Deceptacon” is true to punk and dance in equal measure, a surprisingly rare feat despite an entire genre forming around this combination.

82. Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting on You)” (2014)
from the album Singles

Key lyrics:
“You know, when people change
They gain a peace, but they lose one too”

“Seasons (Waiting on You)” feels like the little indie song that could. The lead single off Future Island’s fourth album, “Seasons” seemed destined to obscurity. This sparse synth-pop sound might have been too understated to initially draw an audience. Future Islands took an appearance on David Letterman and absolutely ran with it. Before anyone knew the song itself, Samuel Herring upsold it on live TV. He sung with death metal growls, exaggerating the already heightened emotions. With Herring’s unusual dance and frankly bizarre vocals, the Letterman performance went viral. By the end of the year, outlets like NME and Pitchfork were calling it the song of the year.

The actual recorded version is effectively subdued. This is synth-pop at its most minimal, a few whirring electronic bits that kick the song off and then tone down almost immediately. As the synthesizer drifts from note to note, the guitar keeps up a wall of constant strumming. This is not a complex song by any measure, but the simple arrangement allows Herring to soar over it. Though lacking the iconic death metal growls (but still featuring a raspy edge), his natural performance journeys through several strong emotions. At once, he portrays grief and the sense of hope that follows. This is ostensibly a break-up song, but Herring tears through the very essence of the human experience.

The Letterman performance did not shape my own opinion – I actually watched it for the first time this morning, though knew what to expect having already seen the band live. But that performance did kick off the hype that led to my awareness of its existence. It’s a numbing realization, to know how many bands must be sitting on something great, only needing a spotlight to turn their way.

81. Talking Heads – “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” (1983)
from the album Speaking in Tongues

Key lyrics:
“Home is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there”

Talking Heads are rarely a band to wear their hearts on their sleeves. From “Psycho Killer” to “Burning Down the House,” the majority of their songs linger at an emotional distance. Even the highly resonant “Once in a Lifetime” is a bit esoteric in its meaning. “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” is an outlier in its ordinariness. David Byrne sings from the heart, individual phrases still surreal but all capturing the warmth of a long-time love.

The simplicity is embedded into the song’s creation. To guarantee a sense of mundanity, Talking Heads handed off their instruments to one another. Through their inexperience, they play more for comfort than to impress. As David Byrne sings about looking for a place he has already found, every inch of this song is already familiar. Yet everything is played at such an understated pace that the repetition warms instead of annoys. This captures not the butterflies of falling in love but the contentment of knowing you have someone to rely on.

Despite its relative simplicity, “This Must Be the Place” stills feels quintessentially Talking Heads. David Byrne’s delivery is among his most powerful, while the little riffs they do manage fit neatly into their particular brand of New Wave. If all Talking Heads songs were this stripped down, they would get boring fast. Their general oddity is what makes “This Must Be the Place” feel so necessary among their body of work. After so many albums with cold exteriors, this song is their human heart.

80. Bruce Springsteen – “Atlantic City” (1982)
from the album Nebraska

Key lyrics:
“Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”

Nebraska finds Springsteen at his most bare, the instrumentation as sparse as his subjects are heavy. If “The River” represented crushed hope, “Atlantic City” is a place where hope was never allowed to form in the first place. The opening line finds the right balance between the specific and absurd; only those in Philadelphia had any reason to know Philip Testa until Springsteen referenced his death. The nickname “Chicken Man” immediately spins this song as a local myth – Springsteen is going full folk here.

The mere existence of Nebraska is one of those lucky incidents in music. Springsteen was trying to work on his next album and recorded a few demos to show his band. A few found their way onto the future album, Born in the U.S.A., but Springsteen was convinced to keep the sparse instrumentation for others. Nebraska is essentially a demo reel, capturing Springsteen’s energy in its rawest form.

But even in demo form, Springsteen crafts a grand soundscape with “Atlantic City.” Though he plays alone, there are several layers. The acoustic guitar is played with great force, while a harmonica pops in after the chorus. A mandolin subtly joins the mix, adding a hollow, ghostly tone. Springsteen mixes in shouted vocals, an angered echo underpinning his more subdued lead. The chorus is a desperate plea, the words carrying a tiny hint of hope cut down by his anxious delivery. Springsteen has written plenty of songs about trying to escape a bad situation, but none so convincingly suggest impending doom like “Atlantic City.”

79. A Tribe Called Quest – “Can I Kick It?” (1990)
from the album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

Key lyrics:
“Boy, this track really has a lot of flavor”

While hip hop was starting to lean more into gangster imagery, A Tribe Called Quest popped onto the scene to deliver the last great burst of golden age goodness. Built around a sample of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Can I Kick It?” is a low tempo jam. Though featuring little more than that sample, a simple beat, muted scratches, and a bit of background chanting, the mixing creates a musical journey. Just take the first verse, where everything but the beat drops out as Q-Tip raps. Halfway through the verse, the Lou Reed sample slides back in. This verse is followed by a wall of scratching and disparate samples. A similar structure occurs during Phife Dawg’s verse, though the Lou Reed sample plays in small bursts through the first half. “Can I Kick It?” makes the most out of a small set.

Then you get to the rhyme scheme. During Q-Tip’s verse, he rhymes with the same vowel sound every line, but subtly shifts the closing consonant. Each line hits with emphasis from the previous. Phife Dawg follows this with an even stronger two-syllable scheme. As far as pure rhyming goes, this is among the best music has to offer. The laidback presentation makes this all easy to digest, as if the Tribe really just wants to show off. But just to make sure everyone is playing along, the chorus is a simple yet effective call and response. This is a party song through and through, a vital dose from an era when hip hop was all about fun.

78. Joy Division – “Atmosphere” (1980)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Your confusion, my illusion
Worn like a mask of self-hate, confronts and then dies”

“Atmosphere” is a difficult song to digest, impossible to separate from Ian Curtis’s suicide. This song was released as a single soon after and feels uncomfortably like a self-requiem. Even without this exterior knowledge, “Atmosphere” hits with unusual gravity. The drums give a sense of stumbling over and over again, one of the most striking beats in all of rock. Outside of Ian Curtis’s tragic life, a sad truth about Joy Division is that the other members often get overlooked despite forming New Order. Curtis’s vocals are powerful, but Stephen Morris gives “Atmosphere” and so much of Closer its weight.

Of course, “Atmosphere” is among their best tracks because Ian Curtis delivers the strongest vocals of his career. The range he shows during the third verse is mesmerizing, with the penultimate shout of “don’t walk away” coming across as a most despairing demand. Every line in this song is extended, Ian Curtis inching out every last drop of emotional vulnerability.

Despite the dark atmosphere, “Atmosphere” is not without hope. Bernard Sumner’s keyboard comes in after the first verse and gives a meditative touch. When discussing the works of suicidal artists, it is key to remember that they were still alive while making their art. If Ian Curtis had not committed suicide, this would be remembered in a very different light – a depressed man finding his voice and speaking up. Though Curtis did not win his battle, his works have lingered in the popular conscious for his ability to so perfectly express what is rarely said. In my darkest times, songs like “Atmosphere” remind me I am not alone in my troubles.

77. Björk – “Hyperballad” (1995)
from the album Post

Key lyrics:
“I imagine what my body would sound like
Slamming against those rocks
And when it lands
Will my eyes be closed or open?”

Though layered in complexities, “Hyperballad” might just be Björk’s most straightforwardly beautiful song. Like many great Björk songs, it fuses together a string section and electronic elements to create something both classical and futuristic. The big difference is that “Hyperballad” largely lacks the tension between these distinct sounds. Both are used to make something positively uplifting. There is a hint of conflict with the heavy bass that opens the song, but a spurt of electronic beats during the chorus puts the mood at ease. The central contrast here is between the meditative verses and the joyous chorus, but they work together in perfect harmony.

The lyrics are evocative, seemingly counter to the majestic soundscape by line but making a beautiful whole. This is a violent song, finding Björk tossing objects over a cliff and ultimately imagining throwing herself off as well. She is invoking the ‘call of the void,’ those nightmarish considerations which cross our minds solely as reminders of their own possibilities. But she finds reassurance in these dark thoughts, recognizing her actual place in the world as far more comforting. “Hyperballad” finds happiness in the absence of darkness.

“Hyperballad” is also a strong slice of early electronic-infused pop music. The beats that dominate the chorus are ready for the dancefloor, a pulse-pounding rhythm that suggest Björk is being carried away by thoughts of her lover. Yet while celebrating love, Björk focuses exclusively on moments of being alone. Just like the quiet ballad and electronic pop sections support each other without intersecting, Björk finds strength through love even on her own.

76. Wilco – “Jesus, Etc.” (2002)
from the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Key lyrics:
“Our love is all of God’s money
Everyone is a burning sun”

Though the apparent 9/11 references were entirely incidental, the song being written before that day, “Jesus, Etc.” perfectly captured the spirit of America in the following years. This is Americana at its most melancholic, picturing skyscrapers packed together while the people inside could not feel further apart. The narrator comforts someone overwhelmed by this idea, of a place so dense yet cold. And his words are comforting, positing each and every one of us as a sun, first setting but then burning. Though we may feel as though we are drifting alone, we burn bright enough to make it through.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot captures a band in transition. Though Wilco started as an alternative country band, Jeff Tweedy wanted to push the group in bold new directions. The resulting album feels like a tour of possibilities, somehow managing a unified sound while each individual part takes a distinct direction. “Jesus, Etc.” is the sad violin song of the bunch, and its success is one of simple beauty. Wilco took an underutilized instrument and crafted a bold song around its potential in an uncommon style. All a great song needs sometimes is the right instrument.

The key to “Jesus, Etc.” is how ordinary the violin sounds with the rest of the instruments. Much of the popular music that uses this instrument is doing so to create an elevated sound, to suggest something classical. The part in “Jesus, Etc.” is clearly written by a guitarist, focused more on forming a central riff. This down-to-earth structure captures the violin in a rare light, causing the whole song to shine with it.