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