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