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)
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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)
“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
“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
“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.