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My Top 250 Songs Part 2 (#225-201)

See #250-226 here

225. Elliott Smith – “Waltz #2 (XO)” (1998)
from the album XO

Key lyrics:
“I’m never gonna know you now
But I’m gonna love you anyhow”

Elliott Smith’s music tends to embody raw human emotions, largely at their lowest points. “Waltz #2” in particular paints such a singular image. A feuding couple at karaoke sing pointed breakup songs at one another while Smith appears to look on, reflecting on his own troubled life. The chorus is haunting yet familiar, the urge to love someone from a distance. Smith was a lyrical genius, and this is a masterwork; that opening verse kills me every time, particularly the line ‘she appears composed, so she is, I suppose.’ When not commenting on the current scene, Smith remarks upon his emotional state, absolutely failing to reassure the listener that he is doing okay. Like Joy Division, Elliott Smith’s music sometimes feels a little too raw considering his fate. This is authentic turmoil.

The music captures the internal conflict, a slow waltz with a depressive guitar jangle that rises to great heights when Smith forces a positive appearance like the subject of his first verse. By the end, Smith is no longer capable of wearing a happy face. The instruments derail around him as his distant longing overwhelms everything else. Though pretty simple stylistically, “Waltz #2” generates a flurry of emotion.

224. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – “Mustt Mustt” (1990)
from the album Mustt Mustt

In music, a truly mesmerizing voice can transcend any language barrier. I can’t even begin to guess what this song is about – any research into the meaning now would clearly be a distraction from the reasons for its presence. Its musical origins is in the Qawwali style, a form of devotional music among the Sufi people. In “Mustt Mustt,” this style dating back 700 years is fused with modern production techniques to create something with surprising force. Throughout, a catchy rhythm and chanting choir backs Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

This feels like a song designed purely to highlight the vocalist. While the backing music remains simple and calm, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan absolutely tears through the piece, growing more impassioned through each verse. Every moment in this song bends to his voice. He overwhelms the senses; as religious music, he makes you feel his absolute devotion. This project came about when Peter Gabriel brought producer Michael Brook together with Khan, and the purpose seems clear. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was one of the greatest vocalists who ever lived, and this track was designed to grant him international attention. One does not need to share his beliefs to recognize the raw talent on display.

223. Arcade Fire – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (2010)
from the album The Suburbs

Key lyrics:
“I need the darkness
Someone, please cut the lights”

Upon release, “Sprawl II” was far from a standard Arcade Fire song – this is one of those rare moments where an established band tries something new on a single track, and that experiment influences their sound from that moment on. And that’s for better or worse; their two albums since The Suburbs never quite capture the magic of this first attempt. “Sprawl II” is a perfect fusion of Arcade Fire’s larger than life sound and disco influences, a glistening synthpop jam that truly captures an endless sprawl.

This is one of the few Arcade Fire tracks that features Régine Chassagne on lead vocals, and to great effect. Though her gentle voice typically works better in contrast with Win Butler’s sheer passion, this track casts her against the music itself. This is an epic piece that threatens to drown her out, positioning her perfectly to sing about the suffocating need to escape. Going over the lyrics, it’s easy to imagine Win Butler creating a sense of despair. Instead, Chassagne adds a sense of hope, by the end singing with the power of someone who will force her way out of this horrid isolation. Beyond that, the instrumentation is a sheer delight; the moment around the 2:40 mark is a highlight, the synths winding down like all is about to be lost, only for the song to slowly recover before Chassagne comes roaring back.

222. Amy Winehouse – “Rehab” (2006)
from the album Back to Black

Key lyrics:
“It’s not just my pride
It’s just till these tears have dried”

Sometimes, it becomes difficult to fully appreciate the context of a breakthrough single in retrospect. Even before Winehouse’s untimely yet all too predictable death, “Rehab” was as dreary as pop hits come. This song acts as a desperate cry for help, but only through several layers of denial. It takes guts to acknowledge a drinking problem, even if Winehouse embraces every opportunity to explain away her behavior. She doesn’t have the time, she fears losing someone, she’s depressed, she only needs it until she’s feeling better. Amy Winehouse spills her entire being into this song.

The instrumentation serves to reinforce her denial. Winehouse uses the music to build a wall between herself and her words, adding bitter irony. But this is a pop hit because the song is just that catchy. Her soulful voice blends perfectly with an older style of R&B. At the same time, what was there to suggest a throwback R&B song by a no-name artist would become a major hit in the mid-2000s? Making the focus about addiction was a risk that paid off; there’s an air of authenticity here rarely heard on mainstream radio. Winehouse’s brutal honesty set the scene for several pop artists in the years that followed, from Adele to Lady Gaga to Lana Del Rey. But back in 2006, Amy Winehouse largely stood alone.

221. Charles Mingus – “Track C – Group Dancers” (1963)
from the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

“Track C” starts small, a piano that shuffles along as though trying to find itself. Then, right at the forty second mark, a cacophony of other instruments blasts between notes, and the track starts showing hints of its true colors. A minute later, the song falls into an abrasive groove before falling back onto that lone piano, eventually exploding into one of the most dizzyingly chaotic jazz pieces I know. The sections dive into disparate territory, one segment starting ostensibly Western before descending into a wall of noise which eventually returns to the refrain. In popular consciousness, jazz is the type of music you play at a lounge or a coffee shop, something light and inoffensive. Here, Mingus wields jazz like a sonic weapon.

Even without lyrics, “Track C” paints a vibrant picture. To me, this captures the anxiety of being stuck in traffic in a big city, horns blaring as you have nowhere to turn. Even after pulling oneself together, the underlying tension is inescapable. The music keeps pushing forward; this is an exhausting listen, a piece made more to be experienced than enjoyed. Plenty of artists attempt aggression as a defining trait, but Mingus pulls it off without losing his cool. “Track C,” impossibly, acts as chaos with pinpoint precision, fine-tuned to get under the skin.

220. Rage Against the Machine – “Killing in the Name” (1992)
from the album Rage Against the Machine

Key lyrics:
“Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses”

Part of my difficulty with harder forms of rock is a persistent sense of unearned anger. Rage Against the Machine are among the few that genuinely work for me, as their lyrics focus on topics deserving of such vitriolic disparagement. “Killing in the Name” has particularly aged well, an anti-police tirade with simple lyrics operating as perfect slogans. As anti-police sentiments grow more mainstream, this song solidifies itself as a timeless classic of the early 90s.

A deserving target is not enough alone; anger is a complex emotion, one too easily reduced to shouting. On “Killing in the Name,” Zack de la Rocha repeatedly reduces himself to quiet seething during the pre-chorus, the drums punctuating every line until the band builds itself into a frenzy. The outro works in a similar fashion, a quiet rage soon unleashed. The repetitive lyrics work wonders here, suggesting one fixating on their grievances until their only option is to lash out. On a sonic level, these quiet parts truly feel unique. In a medium all about sound, few artists experiment with its absence. Rage Against the Machine pulling it off while working in a metal subgenre is truly impressive. Of course, to fully work, the harder parts have to do some heavy lifting. The drums are forceful, but Tom Morello’s shredding is next level, including an unforgettable guitar solo. Rage Against the Machine earn their anger.

219. Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope” (2010)
from the album The ArchAndroid

Key lyrics:
“Some callin’ me a sinner
Some callin’ me a winner
I’m callin’ you to dinner
And you know exactly what I mean”

“Tightrope” is an energetic genre blender, featuring shades of funk, soul, and even hip hop thanks to a verse from Big Boi. But the dominant feature here is the funk, a genre that inexplicably lied dormant for several decades. Unlike disco, the disappearance does not appear to have any clear social explanation. In an odd turn, it simply seems like no major act tried carrying the torch. When one returns to a largely abandoned genre, the easiest term is to call it a throwback. Yet “Tightrope” shines because it never feels like a nostalgia piece. Instead, Monáe filled in the gap between Prince and the modern era, making a song that perfectly captures the spirit of the 2010s.

Monáe does this by recognizing the versatility of funk. The stellar bassline and killer percussion does not need to stretch much to accommodate the variety of vocal styles on display. “Tightrope” is loaded with ideas, yet it never loses a sense of unity. From beginning to end, this is among the most danceable songs I know. Monáe shines as a vocalist, jumping between spoken verses and impassioned soul singing for the chorus. Like the best funk songs from yesteryear, “Tightrope” is a blast of pure joy.

218. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes” (2007)
from the album Kala

Key lyrics:
“All I wanna do is *gunshots*
and a *gun cocking* *cash register*
and take your money”

There is something sinister about making such a catchy chorus and corrupting it in such a way to prevent anyone from singing along. Yet in doing so, M.I.A. shot into the spotlight. The strange thing here is that, for those who have listened to her other work, “Paper Planes” might actually find M.I.A. at her most restrained. Compared to the aggressively up-tempo “Bird Flu” and “Boyz,” the first two singles from the same album, “Paper Planes” can be described as downright mellow. Being that “Paper Planes” was only the fourth single, M.I.A. seemed to have accidentally stumbled into a sound that would resonate with a larger audience.

The mellow atmosphere masks some serious anger. M.I.A. positions herself as someone forging visas, a foreigner robbing people of their jobs, a secret agent here to corrupt your society. The rampant attacks on immigrants are reduced to absurdity when spoken aloud by one accused. Yet she has fun in playing that role, dishing out boasts about running the drug trade and comparing herself to a one-woman KGB. There are many ways to fight bigotry, but few expose the baselessness like playing along. “Paper Planes” is one of the strangest songs to achieve mass popularity, and it did so with a singular message.

217. Soft Cell – “Tainted Love” (1981)
from the album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

Key lyrics:
“Once I ran to you
Now I’ll run from you”

There’s something disarmingly simple about the appeal of “Tainted Love” that makes sense once you realize it’s a cover of an obscure Gloria Jones song from the 1960s. Lyrically, this is a very standard Motown number, one easily lost in the shuffle. Soft Cell elevate it through prominent synthesizers, transforming the song into one of the first synth-pop mega hits. Heartbroken love songs are a dime a dozen, but few vocalists are as convincing as Marc Almond. The way he shouts “Don’t touch me, please” at the beginning of the outro blows me away.

When I think synth-pop, my mind immediately jumps to frantic energy, but “Tainted Love” maintains a rather low tempo. The energy of the song is provided by forceful percussion. The song reaches a stylistic peak during the chorus, when the synthesizer draws out the notes, simulating an organ. Yet the beat never drops away, creating a jarring contrast. I have joked before that every upbeat New Wave song with subtly dark lyrics has an indie artist waiting to make a brooding cover, yet “Tainted Love” proves a perfect example of making that urge work. The original song was never a hit, but Soft Cell dug up a deeper meaning through a new sound.

216. Elliott Smith – “Between the Bars” (1997)
from the album Either/Or

Key lyrics:
“The potential you’ll be, that you’ll never see
The promises you’ll only make”

In a career full of despairing tracks, “Between the Bars” just might be Elliott Smith’s most haunting. He sings in a strained whisper, almost like a ghost. The instrumentation is equally ethereal, dominated by the gentle strumming of a guitar. On all levels, this is a song that suggests someone who has given up, made all the harder to consume in retrospect.

The lyrical point of view is so compelling. Instead of singing directly from the heart, the perspective is given from a bottle of alcohol. This is a siren song, a destructive force gently lulling you into comfort. This lends a more universal element than a straightforward approach. Not everyone has experienced addiction or depressive episodes. By painting his struggles as an outside entity, Smith articulates his situation as spending time with an enabling friend, someone incapable of realizing the harm they are doing. The quietness of the song suggests, if not a warm place, at least a safe one away from the world. This is a friend who will never leave you, one which must be pushed away with great force; but why would you when they offer such an easy escape? As someone who has been lucky enough to never deal with addiction, this gets the message across painfully well.

215. Tim Buckley – “Song to the Siren” (1970)
from the album Starsailor

important alternative version:

Key lyrics:
“Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you hare when I was fox?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks”

“Song to the Siren” is a song that has been covered by dozens of artists, and choosing the best version when even the original artist seemed indecisive is challenging. Popular consensus would go with the folkier version (or, more likely, the cover by This Mortal Coil which narrowly missed this project). But there’s something about the album version which hits me like nothing else. Sure, the folk version might be downright beautiful, but the Starsailor version finds an artist in the depths of experimentation. On this particular version, Buckley is playing more toward the Scott Walker crowd. The lyrics are versatile, but the folk version takes it too easy. On Starsailor, Buckley is absolutely wailing with grief.

In this recording, Buckley dares to push his vocals to the absolute limit. Some people might even find it comical, but I’ve always been enamored by artists who step outside pop traditions when it comes to vocal performance. The sparse instrumentation centers his vocals while adding a perfect eerie quality; the famous cover by This Mortal Coil captures a similar yet more traditionally beautiful atmosphere. In this form, “Song to the Siren” steps beyond a simple love song and truly embraces the nautical theme. With the backing music wailing like a siren, the lyrics take on a literal quality. One can picture a sailor bellowing this in ancient times.

214. The Beatles – “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)
from the album Revolver

Key lyrics:
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”

While Revolver truly kicks off with “Eleanor Rigby,” a song pulling unapologetically from the past, it ends at the opposite extreme. “Tomorrow Never Knows” finds The Beatles contemplating a bright and shining future, with instrumentation to match. After years of being the biggest band on the planet, The Beatles locked themselves in the studio and refused to come out. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a result of that isolation, a track purely meant to be recorded.

This track is most iconic for its reversed sound, resulting in a quality best described as psychedelic. John Lennon’s vocals are the only element to be grasped with a sense of forward time, but even that feels ready to fade into the ether. Time is collapsing in on itself, but in a serene manner. Tons of ideas pop up and then fade away, the lines of reality blurring together. This might not have worked without the drum beat holding everything together, itself hypnotic but grounded like a backbone. This is a band testing the limits of what they could get away with and stumbling upon a masterpiece. Whenever I think of a song to serve as the dividing line between the two major Beatles eras, this is an easy pick.

213. M83 – “Midnight City” (2011)
from the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Key lyrics:
“The city is my church”

Even the best synth-pop songs tend to be a tad dorky; it’s part of the charm. Yet “Midnight City,” despite its rather eccentric production, popped onto the scene like the most effortlessly cool song ever written. This is a song that never lets up, starting with that unforgettable opening (which is apparently a heavily distorted voice) through the reflective verses to the saxophone solo that closes it all out. The stellar sound brings up images of driving through a city at night, but not just any city. This is a city dotted with neon signs but otherwise cast in darkness, a place you can only visit in dreams.

This is another song defined by contrasts. That distorted wailing weaves its way throughout the song, sometimes taking center stage, sometimes blending in with the instruments. Its propulsive force lets “Midnight City” dip in and out of a faster pace at will. This one element creates a sound that is truly monolithic. Yet “Midnight City” simultaneously feels meditative, Gonzalez’s gentle voice casting a warm presence before bursting with energy at the end of the final verse as he declares the city his church. In 2011, it was a song that sounded like no other – synth-pop had been around for decades, but M83 discovered a new form.

212. Arcade Fire – “Rebellion (Lies)” (2004)
from the album Funeral

Key lyrics:
“People say that you’ll die
Faster than without water
But we know it’s just a lie
Scare your son, scare your daughter”

Funeral stands as one of the definitive albums of the 2000s, largely thanks to a texture that rises above and beyond typical indie rock. This is an album with strings and an accordion, creating a sound so lush that its classification as ‘rock’ feels more due to the lack of a better term than a proper description. But there is one genuine rocker tucked away near the end, a song that rises as a perfect anthem. “Rebellion (Lies)” begins relatively subdued, as expected from the rest of the album, only to repeatedly pick up the pace, reaching a high during the chorus. While Win Butler stays on the same level as the opening verse, the backing chanting of “lies, lies,” adds just the right amount of oomph. The song keeps rising, a perfect crescendo.

But like the rest of Funeral, “Rebellion (Lies)” happily steps outside traditional instrumentation. The song mellows out near the end, shifting its focus to a violin solo. Even when they’re rocking out, Arcade Fire show signs of introspection. With such a dense sound on their debut album, Arcade Fire were at risk of lacking an easy hook. But “Rebellion (Lies)” finds perfect balance between accessible and innovative.

211. Arcade Fire – “Wake Up” (2004)
from the album Funeral

Key lyrics:
“We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms
Turning every good thing to rust
I guess we’ll just have to adjust”

Deciding between “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up” as the better song off Funeral is an impossible task. These songs are two extremes of the same piece, eternally linked together in my mind. “Wake Up” is the big spiritual cleanser, soon chased by “Rebellion (Lies)” as the next step forward. But I give “Wake Up” the slightest edge, as it truly exists on a singular level. Funeral is all about crescendos, and this one hits the highest level. It carries this richly bittersweet feeling, capturing a sense of both loss and wonder – in many ways, the same feeling I get from the best Sigur Ros songs.

Yet the dominant feeling I get from “Wake Up” is hope. The lyrics carry a certain amount of angst, but only to acknowledge past failings as a way of moving on. And like “Rebellion (Lies),” the last minute shifts focus. It becomes something like gospel, but with a drumbeat forcing a higher energy. The final line is a cathartic shout, the instruments winding to a poignant stop seconds later. Everything about this song feels bigger than life. If “Rebellion (Lies)” served as a familiar invitation, “Wake Up” is the payoff that revealed Arcade Fire as a truly unique voice in music.

210. Johnny Cash – “I Walk the Line” (1956)
from the album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!

Key lyrics:
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine”

“I Walk the Line” is a love song with a subtle edge. This is a man declaring his devotion, but in a way of acknowledging his need to do so. Staying faithful takes effort, but she is worth that effort. Johnny Cash’s gravelly voice adds to this atmosphere. In most other hands, this could read as a typically light love song. Here, Cash comes off as a gruff figure – few love songs carry such a distinctly masculine energy. This is the soft side of a man otherwise busy shooting men in Reno and drinking too much. Or, less charitably but still as effective, “I Walk the Line” is a promise from a man destined to break it.

The tune itself is simple and effective, featuring a beat that plods along like a steam train. The guitar bounces between chords, occasionally shifting notes but never doing anything complex. Johnny Cash gently hums between verses, a purely functional choice on his part to help change keys that ends up adding a homegrown, country feel. All of this adds up to a definitive country recording, a song pretty much anyone could learn to play, but with just the right voice that no one can do it better.

209. Art Ensemble of Chicago – “Theme de Yoyo” (1970)
from the album Les Stances a Sophie

Jazz is a broad genre that cannot be pigeonholed into a single dominant mood, yet I am always drawn to the most chaotic pieces. This is not because I think of chaotic jazz as better than other forms of jazz; rather, jazz has a capacity for chaos that other popular genres tend to lack. Something about a horn section can be so forceful, and few songs showcase this like “Theme de Yoyo.” Compared to Charles Mingus’s “Track C,” “Theme de Yoyo” is much more approachable. The atmosphere here does not suggest destruction or stress, but rather a group of musicians having a whole lot of fun.

Part of what makes this work is that the truly chaotic sections act as a payoff. Any time it risks becoming too much, it cycles back to a quieter part. Excellent vocals are provided by Fontella Bass, tossing out several viscerally unpleasant descriptions that cast the chaotic moments as a reflexive wince. The bass adds a funky backbone, supporting the surprisingly accessible sound. This is a true ensemble piece, each instrument showing off yet coming together so perfectly. Though this might not be a song that can turn skeptics onto jazz, it reveals the limitless possibilities of the genre.

208. Missy Elliott – “Work It” (2002)
from the album Under Construction

Key lyrics:
“Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup”

Nothing bothers me more than the endless debates over the greatest rappers, chiefly because I rarely hear Missy Elliott namedropped. Putting her on that level should not be an uncommon opinion; her popularity during the late-90s and early 2000s was matched by her critical success. And there’s nothing about her music suggesting she was pandering for popularity; a track like “Work It” is as out of leftfield as it is effective. In fact, her best work is unapologetically weird, in a way we rarely got from female pop stars in that era – and now seems a defining trait for so many.

The production on Missy’s best tracks are next level. “Work It” has such an electrifying rhythm; while plenty of modern pop can be vaguely considered danceable, Missy Elliott was making genuine dance music. But never does she come off as a rapper coasting off strong production. Her rapping is as forceful and energetic as her beats. Lyrically, “Work It” is an aggressive ode to herself, a celebration of her own body. She blurs the line between sex appeal and outright vulgarity, a warning she might be too much to handle for the average man. Yet the entire experience adds up to something playful, Missy having fun with her own audacity.

207. Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976)
from the album Ramones

Key lyrics:
“Hey, ho, let’s go”

The Ramones were not the first punk band, but they certainly seem to be the first to establish the idea in the popular consciousness. Even the most important artists typically take a few years before others start taking inspiration from their work. Matching the rapid speed of their debut single, the Ramones influenced Sex Pistols and The Clash before the Ramones themselves had truly become established. While this bratty style now seems inseparable from punk rock, one only has to look at the term before these bands took over – their contemporaries were acts like Patti Smith and Television.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” is the definitive Ramones song almost by default. Quite a few artists get accused of making the same song over and over. For the Ramones, this is entirely true. The fourteen tracks on their debut album rarely stretch longer than two and a half minutes, all played at double speed to make up for their astonishingly simple structure. The strength here is that this one song idea is just that good. “Blitzkrieg Bop” has always had an edge, however, due to the opening chant. This song is perfect for the stadium, showing that even the simplest song by a group who can barely play their instruments can feel larger than life when played just the right way.

206. Violent Femmes – “Blister in the Sun” (1983)
from the album Violent Femmes

Key lyrics:
“I’m high as a kite, I just might
Stop to check you out”

Folk punk is one of those genres that sounds like a conceptual mismatch until you hear it. Punk becomes something else entirely while played on acoustic instruments. A quintessential punk song, one might not even stop to consider how unique “Blister in the Sun” is among the pack. Violent Femmes exist at the opposite extreme of the Ramones, finding a niche so singular that no one else has managed to capture the spirit to widespread success.

It’s hard to beat the opening riff of “Blister in the Sun.” The acoustic bass captures a playful energy all by itself, twice punctuated by the drums before the other instruments join in. Through most of the verses, the song captures a frenetic energy, but without the aggression typical of most punk acts. Key to the whole structure is a quiet section, where whispered vocals are left with a gentle drum patter and the riff. All three grow increasingly quiet as the section plays out, only to immediately explode to the normal volume without missing a beat. Even throughout the quiet section, the song never loses its propulsive energy. In an era where punk was turning increasingly hardcore, Violent Femmes veered in the opposite direction and stumbled across a truly timeless sound.

205. 808 State – “Pacific State” (1989)
from the album 90

“Pacific State” is a song with half a dozen variants, but I’m most familiar with “Pacific 202.” This is an electronic classic that defies easy classification. A frenetic electronic beat is paired with hypnotic animal noises and a more subdued yet dominant saxophone. 808 State perfectly shift our attention throughout, dropping out the saxophone here, focusing on the animal noises there. Those moments where all the pieces come together operate as a peaceful ambience while maintaining a danceable beat. This is a song that returns the energy you put into it.

With songs like this, the dominant thread is the sense of motion and imagery. No matter the section, this song captures my attention with a forward momentum. I picture myself cruising down a highway parallel to the ocean, seagulls flying overhead. As the waves lap against the beach, it lingers not as seafoam but television static. It’s the type of electronic soundscape people only made when they viewed the genre as a portal into an impossible future. This is a piece that wears its era on its sleeve, but that is not a bad thing. By so earnestly looking to the future, it now stands as an optimistic slice of the past.

204. LCD Soundsystem – “How Do You Sleep?” (2017)
from the album American Dream

Key lyrics:
“I must admit
I miss the laughing
But not so much you”

James Murphy has captured dozens of emotions over his four albums as LCD Soundsystem, but “How Do You Sleep?” stands out as his sole track tackling outright anger. Lyrics which would typically be deployed as playful jests are pure vitriol here as Murphy tears down an old friend who betrayed him on numerous levels. Murphy is happy to reference his predecessors, the title an obvious homage to the John Lennon song of the same name. But on a sonic level, this is far from Lennon, instead taking its influence from only the darkest Joy Division and New Order songs.

The song opens with something like an accelerated tribal drum pattern, the synthesizers softly in the distance. For the first three and a half minutes, James Murphy sings over this sparse sound, almost as if shouting from a distance. This is a slow burn, leading into a cathartic synthesizer burst right at that three and a half minute mark. The song again shifts near the five minute mark, adding a more traditional rock percussion arrangement. Like the best LCD Soundsystem songs before it, “How Do You Sleep?” spends its massive length slowly transforming itself. This track in particular stands out through the extremeness of its shift, going from a minimalist piece to quite possibly their most expansive sound.

203. Bruce Springsteen – “The River” (1980)
from the album The River

Key lyrics:
“Then I got Mary pregnant
And, man, that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat”

Bruce Springsteen started his career with albums that cast him as an eternal optimist – even when times got tough, the lyrics and instrumentation suggested someone fighting back. He kicked off the 80s with two albums that saw him giving in. Where “Born to Run” is the anthem for escaping one’s hometown, “The River” is the heart-wrenching story of those finding themselves trapped. Here, Springsteen takes more obvious inspiration from his folk influences, resulting in some of his strongest lyrics. This is a song dealing in specific imagery, establishing a central figure who realizes his earlier emotional escape ended up as his downfall.

“The River” starts with a stunning, wistful harmonica part before Springsteen begins singing. This first verse is sparse, finding Springsteen alone with the guitar, capturing the desolation of his subject matter. Even as the other instruments collectively drop in during the chorus, their downbeat sound heightens the loneliness as Springsteen sings with a desperate edge. Springsteen is central to the development of the Heartland rock movement, and “The River” established a melancholy side. In a way, “The River” fills in the negative space his earlier works merely acknowledged. With “The River,” Springsteen established himself as among the most mature and introspective voices in rock.

202. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
from the album Nevermind

Key lyrics:
“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us”

It’s impossible to deny the cultural significance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – with this track, Nirvana brought not just grunge but alternative rock as a whole to the mainstream. As someone born in the 90s, the song itself is almost too monolithic. For me, this is the default track to which all other songs must be compared – a song so key in the development of my musical knowledge that I struggle to appreciate it as its own thing. How does one judge something which feels as familiar as music itself?

The truth of the matter is that my listening habits trend toward new releases – most of these ‘favorite’ songs have become so entrenched in my being that I rarely revisit them. It’s not that I’ve become bored of their sound, but their imprints are strong enough that active listening adds little to my appreciation. But “Smells Like Teen Spirit” exists on an even higher level.

So, I could talk about how Cobain’s muttered vocals mask lyrics even harder to decipher. The muted guitar riff must have surely struck a chord with people. Kurt Cobain was a phenomenal vocalist, and the whole song is brimming with raw energy. There are a dozen little details about it I love, from Kathleen Hanna scrawling the future title on a wall to Cobain’s own dislike of the song causing several of the definitive elements. But all the elements that made this song so special are negated by my experience. From my perspective, this is the norm from which all else differentiates – an important title, but one that also hinders my enjoyment.

201. Courtney Barnett – “Avant Gardener” (2013)
from the album The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

Key lyrics:
“The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar
I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying”

The instrumentation of “Avant Gardener” is pretty simple. After a pounding drum intro, the guitar drones along somewhere between folk and psychedelic rock. A brief yet effective squealing guitar solo comes in around halfway through. Though the instrumentation is fine enough, this is a singer/songwriter track clearly relying on some stunning delivery to truly sell itself.

Luckily, Courtney Barnett kicked off her career with some truly phenomenal lyricism. She shirks off any idea of universal themes, instead penning a song about trying to garden and immediately having an asthma attack. Her sing-song delivery matches the droning of the guitars, suggesting a truly tiring and overwhelming experience. Her lyrics are clever in a dozen ways, painting such a finely detailed image that one must believe this all really happened. Yet she also relates this very singular moment to her life at large, a rare moment of inspiration shut down and forcing an immediate retreat to the safety of her mundane existence. Her wordplay is the truly mesmerizing element, managing to rhyme “emphysem-ing” with “kerosene and” while also tossing out words like pseudoephedrine like it’s nothing. The ramble of her voice adds to this delivery, simultaneously suggesting a dreamlike haze and absolute lucidity. This is the perfect example of a song stronger than the sum of its parts, with Barnett juggling several familiar sonic elements while crafting a whole that is uniquely her own.

My Top 250 Songs Part 1 (#250-226)

A little over a decade ago, I started really getting into popular music. And, for anyone who knows me, that means a big list soon followed. I started with a simple top 250, which has grown to a ranked list of 3000 I update annually. Yet, with all that, I have never sat down and written about this music. I’ve always wanted to explore why these songs click with me so much, to prove some sort of reason behind these numbers. A large part of this urge is that writing about music is rather difficult, but I can only get better through practice. Many of these songs have survived from that initial top 250, while others only reached these heights in my last annual update. Whatever the case, they are all beloved – I would not have bothered ranking 3000 songs if I did not love each and everyone, and these 250 just happen to be the best of the best.

#250. The The – “This is the Day” (1983)
from the album Soul Mining

Key lyrics:
“And all your friends and family
Think that you’re lucky
But the side of you they’ll never see
Is when you’re left alone with the memories
That hold your life together like glue”

Few moments in music can put me in a positive mood like the glistening intro to “This is the Day.” Yet buried beneath the candy-coated surface is something darker, in a way only synth-pop can provide. Listen too closely to the lyrics and you can imagine some maudlin indie rocker wanting to do a moody cover version. But contrast is key, and this is a masterclass in mixed emotions. This is an anthem for finally trying to make something of yourself, which first requires admitting earlier failings. But there’s no need to sonically fixate on those failings; that is all in the past, and this is the new you! I mean, as long as you can tell yourself that…

There’s always something compelling about a band daring to experiment with instrumentation, and “This is the Day” stands out as a definitive accordion song in popular music. Mixing that together with the synthesizer creates an unexpected serenity, further accentuated by Matt Johnson’s calming vocals. This results in a song perfect for either extreme, to bliss out while happy or find understanding and comfort while low. A cynic could say this is a song about denial; will this day really be any different? To me, the instrumentation suggests a stronger message – at any time, you can make this the day.

#249. Goldfrapp – “Lovely Head” (2000)
from the album Felt Mountain

Key lyric:
“Why can’t this be killing you?”

Trip hop just might be the coolest genre on earth, and few showcase this better than Goldfrapp’s “Lovely Head.” After a Western-influenced whistling intro, James Bond-style verses are punctuated by an increasingly frantic synthesizer. Few songs feel so confrontational while maintaining such class. At the heart of this is a bitter sense of longing, with lyrics suggesting violent desire. All of this adds up to an atmosphere that can only be described as suffocating – this is a track I turn on whenever I want to feel overwhelmed. I can’t help but imagine some neo-noir cyberpunk spy film every time I listen – any song which hits me with such visceral and specific imagery is something special.

This is another song that succeeds by daring to try something different. In this case, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory were messing around with an old synthesizer. They connected her vocals where a guitar was supposed to go, resulting in that eerie sound. To then combine that with two very 60s styles results in something like few others, bridging the past to the future. Goldfrapp would tone down the intensity on their later hits, but this sound is so singular that I can’t blame them.

248. Simon and Garfunkel – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)
from the album Bridge Over Troubled Water

Key lyrics:
“If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind”

Sometimes, you just need gentle instrumentation so a vocalist can showcase the raw emotion of their voice. This is as tranquil and reassuring as music gets; the fact this was recorded by a duo in the process of falling apart is imperceptible. Without missing a step, the song transitions into an explosive finale, and Art Garfunkel reaches an intensity rarely seen in popular music. There’s no experimentation, no genres being pushed. This is one of those legendary songs that found something simple yet universal; a song millions would sing along with, even if they could never belt it out like Garfunkel.

This is another of those rare songs that can instantly lift my spirits. I never want to be sentimental, but that sort of power deserves to be celebrated. Music is the one medium I can consistently rely on for that feeling, to carry me out from the darkness. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is funeral music – the type of song you play to remind yourself things get better on the other side. This is not music as escapism but a form of honest coping acknowledging the difficulties in life. There is an endless sea of gentle piano music, but few reach these heights.

247. Cerrone – “Supernature” (1977)
from the album Supernature (Cerrone III)

Key lyrics:
“Maybe nature has a plan
To control the ways of man”

As a culture, we collectively decided disco was uncool, and I don’t know how that is possible when “Supernature” exists. In many ways, this feels like the prototype of what would become house music; ten minutes of somewhat intimidating synthesizer heaven. This is one of those tracks few know (at least today – it was actually a hit at the time), though the influence is readily apparent; Goldfrapp named their third album after it, while Todd Terje and Lindstrom practically owe their ‘space disco’ sound to its existence. This is disco with an unexpected edge; the cheesy lyrics are countered by some floor stopping breakdowns. If only the American popular consciousness latched onto this instead of the Bee Gees, we wouldn’t have had to wait until the 2000s for disco to be ‘rediscovered’ (under new names, of course).

“Supernature” is one of those legendary songs that carved its own niche in such a way that its impact could only be felt in retrospect. How did a disco song end up with such a dire sound? Cerrone creates something truly apocalyptic while keeping it ready for the dancefloor. Giorgio Moroder remarked that the synthesizer was the sound of the future, and Cerrone’s “Supernature” is a perfect example of an older song that sounds truly timeless.

246. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight” (2020)
from the album What’s Your Pleasure?

Key lyrics:
“And if a touch is just a touch, then a touch just ain’t enough
Tell me what it means, tell me you’re in love”

Jessie Ware spent much of the 2010s being the chillest pop singer around, and she kicked off 2020 with a disco throwback with a glacial energy – and I mean that in the most loving way possible. Though calling this disco does not feel adequate; Pitchfork described it as a ‘long-lost city pop classic,’ and I can’t find a better term than that. This is a dance song to sit around and vibe to, something so subtle you might not notice what it’s doing until the tenth listen. A pop song that glimmers and flourishes, happy to take its sweet time when similar artists are increasingly high energy. Everything builds toward an emotive and explosive ending, as Jessie Ware begs a lover to say something loving. There’s desperation, there’s lust, all being expertly subdued.

There’s something in Jessie Ware’s calm voice that suggests a sense of sophisticated confidence. This is a desperate love song, yes, but she never embarrasses herself. The way the vocals pile on top of each other – the way the backing vocals blend into the strings during the climax! Every time I listen, there’s a new detail that catches my attention. While keeping to an accessible pop sound, Jessie Ware has found a unique voice that I can only hope has far-reaching influence.

245. SOPHIE – “BIPP” (2013)
Single, later featured on compilation album Product

Key lyric:
“I can make you feel better, if you let me”

In a way, SOPHIE’s music feels designed to immediately repulse, only to somehow draw you back when her songs inevitably get stuck in your head. This is manufactured music; crisp production, perfect beats, a voice modified until it is distinctly inhuman. On the surface, annoying; in time, an undeniable pop classic. SOPHIE was an artist who was easy to question – was she mocking modern pop music through exaggeration, or was this a legitimate attempt to push the genre to its breaking point? In all honesty, it feels like a little of both, which is what makes it so fun.

In the months since her untimely death, I’ve realized how strangely comforting SOPHIE’s music is – even when she started dropping bangers that made Nine Inch Nails sound like easy listening. The overly clean production somehow feels more authentic than most contemporary pop music – to be produced in this way suggests clear artistic intent. While almost too sugary to digest upon first release, the influence of “BIPP” has seeped its way across the industry – the success of later artists like Charli XCX and 100 Gecs with this sound led to a new subgenre being coined, hyperpop. SOPHIE was clearly trying to capture the sound of the future – with “BIPP,” she absolutely succeeded.

244. Gil Scott-Heron – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971)
from the album Pieces of a Man

Key lyrics:
“The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live”

Gil Scott-Heron’s call for active revolution turns fifty years old this year, though its message feels just as relevant today – unfortunately, that’s more a condemnation of society than any intentional attempt at timelessness. In fact, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” ties itself explicitly to a certain era, calling upon advertising slogans and critiquing specific cultural monoliths at the time. That bombardment of disparate ideas highlights his point – with so much of our lives being sugarcoated and forced down our throats, it’s easy to get complacent. To truly cause a revolution requires looking past the easy comforts and going out in the streets. Of course the revolution will be televised – what he’s saying is that it won’t succeed if too many people are only watching.

Gil Scott-Heron delivers this spoken word piece with a frenetic yet articulate ferocity. His music is commonly considered a precursor to rap, and pieces like this laid the foundation for the more political side of the genre. The backing instrumentation has a jazzy funk quality that really helps sell his delivery, a perfect showcase for fusing poetry with music. This is simply one of those rare cases where the prototype hits just as hard; Gil Scott-Heron jumped in with perfect delivery. An anthem for the oppressed that’s richly layered and rewards casual listening, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” brought protest music to a new level.

243. The Beatles – “Yesterday” (1965)
from the album Help!

Key lyric:
“Oh, I believe in yesterday”

The Beatles have two very distinct eras, and no song better defines their earlier, more traditional sound than “Yesterday.” Which is funny, considering Paul McCartney is the only member to perform on the track. Like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” this is a simple song that picks up on a universal subject in a way that immediately resonates. There’s no specifics – even the narrator seems lost, not certain why his lover left but knowing he must have done something wrong. It’s a song begging to turn back time, to stop this unidentifiable slight from being said – only the lucky or truly lonely have avoided this feeling.

The sparseness of the instrumentation adds to the longing. Though this is actually quite dense; it’s easy to get lost in the acoustic guitar and McCartney’s voice, and the popularity of covering this specific song must come from this oversimplification; anyone can play that part. But it’s the stringed accompaniment that puts it on another level. The true magnificence of this group is the way they make even complex recordings sound simple. It’s even reached the point that there’s a movie named after this song that completely oversimplifies their work. But “Yesterday” is so packed with emotions, few can pull it off like McCartney.

242. The Walkmen – “The Rat” (2004)
from the album Bows + Arrows

Key lyrics:
“When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw
Now I go out alone, if I go out at all”

Few songs capture the raw desperation of a breakup like “The Rat.” One minute, you want nothing to do with someone, the next you’re begging for their attention. The early 2000s saw a brief explosion in post-punk influenced bands, and this was a key piece among the movement. The lyrics are simple and direct, the vocals like an injured animal lashing out at anyone who dares draw near. This is as energetic as rock music comes, every instrument a chaotic force. The drumming here is the standout. I’m not usually one for harder styles, but this hits the right level of aggression in just the right way – it’s angry yet achingly relatable.

Hamilton Leithauser has a vocal style like no one else, and everything about this song amplifies and reinforces his strengths. The bridge is the best part, the seething anger being pulled back, only for the full force of the song to slowly return. This is expertly-crafted chaos. Anger is a truly difficult emotion to capture in music, requiring one to balance a fine line between cheesiness and inauthenticity. In an era where a dozen nu metal bands came off as juvenile amateurs by merely associating anger and loudness, The Walkmen knew when to soften up at just the right time to highlight the surrounding intensity.

241. Hank Williams – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1949)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me, he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry”

Oh, country music, what did they do to thee? An entire genre has been co-opted by ultra-patriots, to the point I can’t even recommend the classics without getting a certain look. It’s rarely a genre I turn to by choice, but Hank Williams hits me on another level. This is almost certainly a breakup song, but the lyrics rely on poignant metaphors over direct information. Whatever caused this pain was so shattering, the birds and even the sky weep with him. This is the raw emotion for which classic country is sometimes mocked, but Hank Williams sells it like no other.

Though country music had been around for decades by this point, Hank Williams’ tragically brief career feels like a key turning point, not just for country but the burgeoning rock scene. In its sound, I hear the American West, but there’s also something deeply personal. Hank Williams feels like the prototypical troubled rocker, which heightens the impact of his desperate crooning. The lack of specifics lend a universal element; this might just be the definitive country song for that reason. This is another classic that has been covered by dozens of artists, but no one can match Williams’ stellar delivery.

240. Wu-Tang Clan – “Protect Ya Neck” (1993)
from the album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Key lyrics:
“The Wu is too slammin’ for these Cold Killin’ labels
Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doin’ artists in like Cain did Abel
Now they money’s getting’ stuck to the gum under the table”

Every rap group needs the crew song, a piece that gives each member a chance to introduce themselves and show their skills. Few of these tracks are as iconic as “Protect Ya Neck,” a rapid fire tour de force shuffling between eight disparate voices. Any time a track like this drops, it’s easy to want to pick out who steals the show – as if a couple members must be carrying the rest. Here, there’s no such luck. Wu-Tang Clan is such a talented group, half the members had successful solo careers. As such, a musical introduction has never felt so legendary from start to finish. This is multiple of hip hop’s finest firing on all cylinders from the beginning.

However, RZA does deserve credit for bringing the song together, both by suggesting the idea and also working as producer on the track. The backing production gives enough space for the rapping to shine while adding a sinister atmosphere. If hardcore hip hop is about intimidation, this is a master track of aggression. The way the verses flows into one another truly paints the Wu-Tang Clan as a cohesive unit. Each verse is packed with a dozen ideas, and the fact it all comes together is a mesmerizing feat.

239. Sigur Rós – “Svefn-g-englar” (1999)
from the album Ágætis byrjun

Key lyric:
“Tju, tju, tju”

“Svefn-g-englar” is a song that creates a sense of beautiful desolation. Whenever I hear it, I can’t help but picture an abandoned society reclaimed by nature. Perhaps it is not so apocalyptic; the lyrics are about a child being born into the world. I can’t imagine much difference between those two feelings. In either case, one is being overwhelmed by loss and beauty. The world is a big place with such conflicting emotions, and “Svefn-g-englar” seeks to capture that in its totality. And in that manner, I find deep comfort in this sound.

Sigur Rós are generally classified as ‘post-rock,’ a lofty term that suggests a pretentious aspect which fails to capture what they’re really doing. To me, this is ambient music by way of rock instrumentation. This is a song that exists in dream space, crafting an atmosphere of sleepy warmth. Jónsi’s voice has an ethereal quality like few others. There are some songs I put on to put me in a good mood, but “Svefn-g-englar” does something harder to express. It’s not necessarily joyous or happy, but it lends an air of serenity to even my most dire moods. Plenty of lyrics promise everything will be alright, but “Svefn-g-englar” with its colossal sound makes that suggestion sonically tangible.

238. The Clash – “London Calling” (1979)
from the album London Calling

Key lyrics:
“A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river”

On the individual level, punk as a genre is never meant to last. The idea that your music represents a movement where anyone can pick up and play starts to fade after a few years of active experience. Few artists transitioned as well between punk and post-punk as The Clash, with “London Calling” acting as a signifier of changing times. Gone was the crude aggression of earlier singles like “White Riot,” replaced by a world-weary dread. This is a sound that suggests the coy playfulness of their earlier works is no longer enough; these issues are real and need to be directly addressed.

The intro perfectly sets the scene, an aggressive drumbeat supporting a stellar bassline and a guitar repetition that slowly grows like a siren before the first verse. Joe Strummer is at his vocal best on this track, giving out animalistic howls between verses. There’s an instrumental interlude after the second chorus that finds The Clash at their most fiery and paranoid, with a brief, scene-stealing guitar solo. The key to their evolving sound is that this still carries the punk aesthetic. An anger directed toward society at large and aggressive calls for action remain; they are simply more articulate through experience.

237. Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth” (1966)
non-album single, featured on later pressings of Buffalo Springfield

Key lyrics:
“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life, it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away”

The late-60s was a time of protests and hippies, and few songs better represent Vietnam era angst like “For What It’s Worth.” Alongside CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” this is the go-to song for movies reflecting on that period, and for good reason. This is a song designed to be a crowd pleaser, with hand claps and harmonizing during the chorus to show that it’s okay to sing along. Stephen Stills’ lead vocals have a soothing quality; the song almost risks dullness until the other voices explode around him, turning this into a bona fide anthem.

Neil Young’s harmonic guitar notes define “For What It’s Worth,” adding an introspective feel over the weary vocal style. That sense of introspection slowly fades, morphing into a sense of action; there’s a subtle shift throughout the song with the harmonics fading during the choruses and the final verse, the backing vocals becoming a continuous presence. Neil Young goes wild during the finale, suggesting a grand solo that would define his own career before the song suddenly ends. A ton of ideas are packed into this brief song. Like “Yesterday,” this is a song that makes the complex look simple; it’s easy to focus on the vocals during the chorus and miss how that shift in guitar style redefines the mood.

236. Fever Ray – “If I Had a Heart” (2008)
from the album Fever Ray

Key lyrics:
“If I had a heart I could love you
If I had a voice I would sing”

Few songs are as haunting as Fever Ray’s debut single as a solo artist, “If I Had a Heart.” A creeping synth chugs along and is quickly joined by an organ. Then Dreijer’s signature pitch-shifted vocals come in, deep and inhuman enough to suggest an otherworldly shamanic figure. It’s moody and haunting, like a piece of music pulled from a parallel reality. Its singularly striking quality was immediately apparent, being used in a dozen shows like Breaking Bad and even serving as the theme song for Vikings. It’s rare for a song to so viscerally suggest something has gone horribly wrong.

Yet the best moment occurs once Fever Ray joins in with their more natural voice. It shatters through the darkness, further painting this as a song of deathly yet human longing. The back half morphs into a duet between Fever Ray and their inner demon; what was once haunting becomes strangely beautiful. While they had long experimented with their voice while working with The Knife, this song’s thudding instrumentation centered the manipulation like never before. Such heavy vocal effects can sometimes create a sense of distance between an artist and their voice. Here, Fever Ray claims this other voice as their own, paving the way for a dozen other queer electronic artists to do the same over the following decade.

235. Björk – “Joga” (1997)
from the album Homogenic

Key lyrics:
“This state of emergency
How beautiful to be”

Björk is capable of creating incomparable sonic landscapes, and “Joga” is among her most unique. Hard, trip hop-styled beats are paired against classically-influenced strings. The song pulls more one way than the other at key moments, starting with the strings but at one point falling into an extended electronic breakdown. The result is something somber yet profound, an absolute flurry of emotions; the lyrics are just dense enough to not cast a clear light. “Joga” sounds like the backing track for an earth-shattering romance, the emotional climax that cannot be expressed through words alone.

Björk falls hard into the ‘art pop’ category, which is a term largely used to categorize what can otherwise not be categorized. Like Kate Bush before her, Björk made the music industry bow to her singular vision. Few pop artists dare to make something as dense as “Joga.” At the same time, this is unquestionably pop music, simply pushed to an extreme few would risk following. Tying everything together is Björk’s powerful vocals, the shining hope that redirects the tense instrumentation into a positive direction. I’m not certain what she means by the beauty of a state of emergency, but I have to believe every word with the conviction of this delivery.

234. Fleetwood Mac – “The Chain” (1977)
from the album Rumours

Key lyrics:
“And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again”

Rumours is the definitive soft rock album, but that does not mean it goes easy. “The Chain” is the most confrontational song on the world’s most celebrated breakup album. The only song written by the band as a whole, “The Chain” finds all three vocalists harmonizing words clearly aimed at other members. This is a group with nothing left to lose; why not provoke each other and turn it into art?

The intro is perfect, a slowly-plucked country tune, set apart from the rest of the song by a brief pause which leads straight into the vocals. This is a Wild West showdown of broken hearts, each singer trying their best to sound the most aggrieved. There’s a percussive kick underlining much of the song, simple yet evocative. The song then ends on an extended outro that edges into hard rock territory, merging perfectly as the vocals come back into the mix. “The Chain” is pop rock distilled into raw emotion, flowing between several ideas with perfect execution. The power of the harmonies here cannot be understated. Harmony typically means unity, and few bands have subverted this idea so effortlessly. This is a group trying their best to work together, “The Chain” intentionally showing the seams.

233. Stereolab – “Cybele’s Reverie” (1996)
from the album Emperor Tomato Ketchup

How do I even begin to describe “Cybele’s Reverie”? This is a track so ephemeral that it feels lighter than air, yet it simultaneously pulses along with a hypnotic rhythm. Sing-song vocals and rapid rock beats are paired with extended string notes. This is a track layered in contradictory elements. The whole piece works in a cycle, brief instrumental breaks giving a breather from the at times overwhelming harmonies. While difficult to describe how it works, the results are easier to express. This is a song that can be taken as ambient introspection or a rapid-fire rocker depending on the mood. This seems like an impossible pairing until you listen, and it clicks immediately.

A lot of this is the result of pinpoint production. The strings get heavier emphasis, allowing the slower section to overtake the energetic. Both sides are ever-present, yet the production tricks your ear into focusing on what would usually be a backing element. By flipping the script, Stereolab created a sound like few others. “Rapid-fire easy listening” sounds obnoxious if not impossible, yet “Cybele’s Reverie” pulls it off like the ultimate summer jam. Above all, this is a song that can always put a smile on my face.

232. The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (2010)
from the album High Violet

Key lyric:
“I never thought about love when I thought about home”

The National are one of those bands that found one strong sound and built their entire careers around slight variations. Most bands would get tiring with such repetition, but The National managed to make five classic albums while perfecting this style. Perhaps the most definitive element is Matt Berninger’s baritone, imbued with just enough passion to overcome the borderline monotony. Few popular acts go this low with their vocals, and even less do so with such warmth. The lyrics are bewildering, including a trip to Ohio on a swarm of bees, but Berninger’s conviction sells the absurdity as something mundane.

Contrasting the gentle vocals is a pressing drumbeat. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” carries a consistently forward motion, little details finding their way into the loop to build a subtly complex sound. A key moment just past the halfway mark has the instrumentation briefly drop out, allowing Berninger’s voice to truly float like the swarm which carries him. The instruments then pick up right where they left off, exposing the great contrast between the two elements. Few artists are as distinctly Midwestern, and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” perfectly captures the pre-Trumpian sense of quiet resignation and feeling forgotten. Yet there is also the self-assured comfort of America’s heartland.

231. Prince – “When Doves Cry” (1984)
from the album Purple Rain

Key lyrics:
“Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like, when doves cry”

It strikes me as I re-listen that this is a genuine musical epic, from that iconic opening shred to the extended outro marked by animalistic shouts. This is a complex fusion of pop, rock, and funk, ditching a bass line entirely while making striking use of the keyboard and synthesizer. The fact this was a popular hit blows my mind; though I grew up in a world knowing this was a classic, a closer inspection reveals just how experimental Prince was being here. Without a bass line guiding the action, “When Doves Cry” glides unexpectedly between moments. The overall complexity is contrasted with momentary bursts of minimalism. The chorus really steals the show, the synthesizer hitting like an unexpectedly cold shower.

With such minimal instrumentation until the finale, Prince’s iconic voice is allowed to take center stage. His delivery is raw passion, sometimes diving into guttural yelps when words can’t possibly work. But every instrument present is given a spotlight, including a complex keyboard solo during the finale. What really surprises me is learning that Prince recorded this song himself, playing every instrument. Few artists pushed the boundaries of popular music like Prince, and the fact he made such an odd song into a number one hit really shows his impact.

230. New Order – “True Faith” (1987)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“I feel so extraordinary
Something’s got a hold on me
I get this feeling I’m in motion
A certain sense of liberty”

There’s something bouncy to the percussion on this song that instantly sends me soaring – as previously established, any synthpop song which does this is actually moody and introspective. It’s a shame that the few dances I’ve been to have been a flurry of modern pop. Even thirty years on, “True Faith” is the ideal club hit. It’s the embarrassing truth of my life that a lot of my favorites are dance songs I will almost certainly never hear in the proper setting unless I become a DJ and force it to happen. But I digress; “True Faith” is a dense song made accessible through its extraordinary beat.

Bernard Sumner might just be the weakest vocalist among my favorite bands, yet that does not stop the best New Order tracks from making proper use of his limited range. His sing-song, monotonous vocals operate as yet another instrument here, adding a serene atmosphere to what could have easily been an instrumental dance track. There is a lot going on here; it’s hard to pick out individual parts from all the chaos. This only proves the improbable success; something this messy shouldn’t come off as singular. “True Faith” is simply another track that always brings me joy.

229. The Cure – “Just Like Heaven” (1987)
from the album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

Key lyrics:
“Why won’t you ever know
That I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?”

Nothing will be funnier to me than the contrast between The Cure’s visual aesthetic and their popular hits. “Just Like Heaven” is among the prettiest tracks rock has given us, making key use of the piano and synthesizer. Few songs glisten like this opening, and they somehow sustain that bliss even as the lyrics take a tragic turn. While Robert Smith’s vocals shine, the song greatly emphasizes the instruments, with the verses interrupted by a guitar solo and then a piano solo. Both are strikingly sweet and dreamy. The one small detail that always grips me is the way the piano begins to underline Smith’s vocals at the end of each verse, which makes the piano solo all the more effective, like an extension of his emotions.

The contrast between image and sound is part of what makes this work. When someone dressed like Robert Smith comes up with a silly love song, you immediately believe he means it. This is sincerity without a hint of sentimentality or emotional manipulation. Despite being among the gothic rock crowd, Smith has an angelic voice. Though he expertly uses that voice to create anxious tension with tracks like “A Forest” or “Lovesong,” this straightforward presentation works wonders.

228. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke” (1976)
from the album Songs in the Key of Life

Key lyrics:
“But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove”

On a lyrical level, “Sir Duke” is a celebration of music itself. In the second verse, Wonder namedrops several of his influences, with the then recently deceased Duke Ellington giving the song its title. Several artists have made songs explicitly listing off their predecessors, but it hits harder coming from someone commonly viewed as a master himself. The lyrics outside the verses are repetitive, but with a purpose. Being a song inspired by jazz artists, Wonder wants to turn your attention to the instrumentation, to the feeling it inspires.

And this truly is a celebration across every layer. After a striking intro dominated by trumpets, the song settles into a catchy groove, with a recurring instrumental break shooting high into the stratosphere. Throughout, the song shows shades of jazz, funk, R&B, and soul. More than listing off names, Wonder wants you to hear their influence. Featured on an album trying to capture life itself, both good and bad, “Sir Duke” serves as the definitive burst of ecstasy. The inspiration for this song calls for a lament, but Stevie Wonder masterfully turns his attention to celebrating Ellington’s eternal legacy. Obviously, most musicians love music, but few have so perfectly translated that emotion into a song itself.

227. Vashti Bunyan – “Diamond Day” (1970)
from the album Just Another Diamond Day

Key lyrics:
“Just another field to plough
Just a grain of wheat
Just a sack of seed to sow
And the children eat”

Vashti Bunyan’s “Diamond Day” feels like a hit single from another, quieter dimension. This serene folk song was doomed in our own world; after the commercial failure of this record, Vashti disappeared for several decades, only returning to music once this album gained a cult following. This is the folkiest of folk music, less Bob Dylan and more a peasant song seemingly transposed from an earlier century. Yet Vashti feels simultaneously ahead of her time, considering the future success of Joanna Newsom. This is an artist daring to call upon niche elements in the name of a singular sound.

The song is soft and ephemeral, coming in at less than two minutes. Her voice feels small, suggesting this is not a woman in a recording studio but a farmer softly singing to herself while working the fields. The instrumentation is similarly airy, making stunning use of a recorder and strings. A ton of detail is packed into this tiny song, creating a sound rarely seen in popular music. The easiest and most obvious comparison is to Nick Drake due to the presence of Robert Kirby. But even then, “Diamond Day” exists on another plane of existence. Where Drake works in grand emotions, this song is an ode to a simple sense of contentment.

226. The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby” (1966)
from the album Revolver

Key lyrics:
“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

While The Beatles were firmly established as the biggest band in the world by the time 1966 arrived, Revolver solidified their image as true musical revolutionaries. I cannot imagine the initial reaction as “Taxman” ended, only for that eager audience to be blasted with this aggressive harmony. If this is considered rock music, it is only because The Beatles were big enough to redraw the lines. No drums, no guitars, no bass, replaced with an ominous string arrangement. “Eleanor Rigby” finds The Beatles purely chasing after atmosphere, a moody piece about unending loneliness. This is a hallmark of the baroque pop movement’s early days. While The Beach Boys were making waves using classical instrumentation for their sunny sound, The Beatles made the shocking (yet effective) decision to fixate on dread.

The lyrics also take a notable shift. Whether happy or sad, earlier Beatles songs focused on love and loss, largely in universal terms. “Eleanor Rigby” is the story of two very specific people. Their loneliness may be relatable, but the detailed imagery paints a powerful picture. A face in a jar, darned socks, a funeral with no guests. The Beatles achieved a new level of maturity in this era, with “Eleanor Rigby” serving as a perfect showcase on every level.

The Greatest Games: BioShock (2007)

BioShock (2007)
Developed by 2K Boston (Irrational Games) and 2K Australia

Would you kindly give me a moment to reflect before diving into BioShock itself?

And so, I finally reach the end of this project. I don’t think I realized what I was setting myself up to do when I established a goal of writing a minimum of 500 words for each game. With 100 games and 500 words being the equivalent of about 2 standard pages, I have essentially written something the size of a small novel, all for a project which was supposed to be a brief distraction as I took a break from editing my actual novel manuscript. Reaching this final moment is both relieving but also a bit of an anti-climax – is BioShock really my favorite video game?

The truth is, BioShock briefly dethroned Final Fantasy X as my favorite game in the time between its release and Persona 4 all those years ago – Persona 4 held my #1 spot until I played Life is Strange. While working on this list, I kept shifting these top six games around and nothing felt right sitting at the top. But the reason I wanted to write about all these experiences which have influenced me throughout my life was to reach a deeper understanding. One thing became perfectly clear – when comparing many of these games to outside experiences, BioShock came up the most, to the point I had to actively stop myself from mentioning it. One might think such universal applicability might be a sign of something generic, yet BioShock has always stood as its own entity. As I wrote while discussing BioShock Infinite, that sequel felt more like a lament that nothing could ever quite capture the magic of the original.

When we talk about great works of art, there is a constant struggle between giving credit to the innovators or the refinements. BioShock falls strictly in the latter category, doing nothing particularly new within the medium. But BioShock feels like a work which draws inspiration from every corner of classic game design to create something exceptional. The influence from other first-person shooters is obvious, but I also see shades of Resident Evil and several principal Nintendo design philosophies.

On the surface, BioShock takes the set-piece design revolutionized by Resident Evil 4 and Half-Life 2 and really perfects it. Like Half-Life 2, this is a first-person shooter which largely refuses to feature cutscenes. Outside of the opening and ending, there are only three I can remember, and they have obvious explanations for having to be presented that way, all while maintaining a first-person perspective and thus a sense of total seamlessness. Yet Half-Life 2 would largely fall back on locking Gordon in a room while other characters spoke to him. BioShock has a similar approach, but two changes make it more effective. First, the characters in BioShock usually get to the point. Second, the characters trapping Jack tend to literally be trapping him; the doors are locked because they don’t want you going forward. These moments are never tedious and tend to be full of tension, typically coming as a lead-in to a major confrontation.

As such, BioShock is one of the best examples of seamless narrative integration. But what if you want more? This is a world with some deep lore, and this is a game which rewards total exploration. While there is always an arrow pointed toward the next destination, the central areas are massive with several stray paths to explore. Rapture is littered with audio diaries, brief snippets from various residents as they reflect on the city. It’s up to the player to learn as much about the city as they desire.

The character design is surprisingly effective, especially for a game which pushed realism all the way back in 2007. Despite this, the enemies are designed to appear intentionally uncanny, helping them age better than BioShock’s contemporaries. Meanwhile, the Big Daddies and Little Sisters are two of the most striking creature designs in all of gaming. Nothing quite gets under my skin like a little girl laughing as she sees a dead body and saying that it’s dancing. Though the combat isn’t BioShock’s strongest point, fighting a Big Daddy is effective. There’s something about the animations of being knocked around that adds a visceral feeling which is lacking in most other FPS games that I have played.

The elements which truly push BioShock above so many other games is setting and atmosphere. Few worlds are as perfectly designed as Rapture, both as a conceptual place and through level design. The idea of Rapture is ingenious – what if a bunch of objectivists attempted to create their own twisted utopia on the ocean floor? As one particularly poignant audio diary puts it, someone has to clean the toilets. This is a city full of naïve opportunists too narcissistic to realize their position in the world was relative. With objectivism putting an emphasis on greedy upward mobility, this is a place where everyone wants to come out on top – but those already on top have the power to put everyone else down. And far beneath the ocean where the man in charge wants to keep the city a secret, everyone is trapped upon entry. Where most sci-fi and fantasy stories rely on a few familiar tropes, Rapture felt like a fresh idea.

The game design itself acknowledges this idea. There are health stations on every corner which seem capable of healing any damage, but of course they require payment. Even the security can be shut down as long as you have a few dollars – the city doesn’t care if you’re sneaking around where you shouldn’t be if you’re loaded. Even the bathroom stalls require payment.

These levels all capture a specific brand of horror. The opening sequence shows a city in decay, suggesting the city will soon be flooded. Many of these stages revolve around a particular person going mad with power, and the Medical Pavilion is the perfect level to kick this off. Dr. Steinman has become obsessed with the idea of becoming the Picasso of surgery, which is exactly as horrifying as that sounds. Despite being surrounded by human beings, few games capture such an unsettling sense of isolation; the closest comparison is Metroid. And like Metroid Prime, this is a perfect example of an FPS where the emphasis is more on exploration than shooting.

The team behind BioShock went to great lengths to give each location its own feel. There’s a subtle color scheme that sets each of these stages apart, yet they all share the right features to feel like parts of the same city. Additionally, all of these stages are engaging. I used to be convinced there was a dip or two, but after replaying this game last week, they each serve a grand purpose.

While there are several great levels, Fort Frolic stands as one of the all-time best. While trying to jump from one passage to the next, Jack gets locked inside and is forced to do the bidding of Sander Cohen, a mad artist who has decided to hunt down his ‘disciples’ to create his masterpiece. It might be hard to imagine the artist quarter being the most terrifying, but the area is filled with his other great works; namely, dozens of dead people cast in plaster. Even worse, some of them turn out to be living…

Would you kindly accept my apology for needing to jump into spoilers for the next paragraph?

And then there’s the big bad himself, Andrew Ryan. Can you talk about BioShock without mentioning that famous scene? You will head into Ryan’s area expecting some explosive confrontation. Instead, the moment is stolen from you; as mentioned before, there are only a handful of cutscenes, yet they choose to put the most important moment in this form. Andrew Ryan explains the truth of this experience, which you might have started piecing together if you paid enough attention to the various audio logs. Jack is Andrew Ryan’s son who has been aged rapidly, thus explaining your ability to use the vita-chambers despite them only recognizing Ryan’s genetics. He then points out that Jack has been trained to follow any command which uses the phrase ‘would you kindly,’ revealing you have been used by the seemingly friendly Atlas from the very beginning, before forcing Jack to beat him to death with a golf club. All this while saying the famous line “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” BioShock and Portal made waves for outright acknowledging the idea that all video games must be programmed and are thus structured, no matter how many choices are offered – but then they push the idea of ‘breaking free,’ revealing the sense of freedom can work even while acknowledging these limits. This scene is perhaps the most important moment in video game storytelling, something which reshaped not just its own narrative but our perception of all others, and the fact it is pointedly a cutscene in a game which otherwise does without should not be overlooked.

It is difficult to call BioShock or any single video game the greatest ever. My own favorite game shifts constantly, and other games have held that title for a more consistent time. Yet it’s hard to overlook just how much this game does right. From the narrative to the atmosphere to the visual design to the sense of exploration, this is a game that does nearly everything right. Yet even this all-time great has one obvious flaw; as a first-person shooter, dozens of others have more engaging combat. My love of BioShock is actually a bit of an oddity – I have never been the biggest fan of this genre. But like Psychonauts or Metroid Prime, BioShock works wonders when viewed more as an interactive adventure. Few experiences have hit me like exploring this underwater testament to humanity’s greed.

The Greatest Games: Persona 4 (2008)

Persona 4 (2008)
Developed by Atlus

Playing Persona 4 back in 2008 was a major revelation. Being my first Shin Megami Tensei game, it surprised me that a traditional turn-based RPG could be truly challenging from the very beginning. But the truly mind-blowing element was the unique formula with which the Persona series tells its stories and the story this specific entry chose to tell.

As I have already written about both Persona 3 and Persona 5, I don’t want to waste too much time retreading the universal elements. The year-long visual novel/JRPG hybrid is phenomenal, and whichever did it best was destined to land a high spot. Instead, I will be comparing this directly to Persona 5 to argue why Persona 4 is the (slightly) better game, while hopefully making it clear why those unique elements add up to a truly masterful experience.

First, Persona 4 keeps things small-scale throughout most of the narrative. The protagonist has moved in with his uncle and niece in a middle of nowhere town named Inaba. An all-consuming Walmart-style entity named Junes has set up shop, so half the businesses on the central street are now closed. Few games bother with a rural setting, and it’s even rarer to find one exploring themes of modern economic hardship – to use this as the setting for an 80-hour JRPG was truly inspired. Compare this to Persona 5, which takes place in the sprawling metropolis you might recognize as Tokyo. Persona 5 is bigger than life, but that’s true of so many games.

Soon after arriving, an upperclassman named Saki Konishi is found hanging from power lines. The protagonist discovers a local rumor called the Midnight Channel, which supposedly shows a person’s soulmate on a foggy night. Instead, he and his friends soon realize that the people who are shown have gone missing. They stumble upon a world inside the television, where people are eaten alive by their own negative self-perception. Thus, the grand stretch of the game revolves around rescuing the various victims while trying to figure out who is shoving them inside in the first place. The overarching story is one of the elements in which I think Persona 5 has the edge, but I also believe the individual moments are Persona 4’s greatest advantage.

In Persona 5, the dungeons are typically built around the villain of the month. They are striking in the moment, but they have little lasting impact on the story; once you defeat the villain, they’re typically out of the picture. The ingenious idea behind Persona 4 is that most of the people being rescued are the future party members. Like Mass Effect 2, Persona 4 has a serious advantage over other RPGs due to treating the individual party members as the central focus for significant portions of the story. Persona 4 is especially interesting because it’s built around learning their deepest secrets before really getting to know them as people. The group coming together in this case also feels natural, as it’s a band of victims teaming up to rescue the next target.

In the context of the series at large, personas are the entities the party members summon to pull off their stronger attacks. At the same time, the series does dive into the Jungian psychology behind these terms. Persona 4 uses the concept of the shadow well, where the main bosses are the shadow selves the victims refuse to acknowledge as parts of themselves. By eventually confronting this part, the characters are better able to express themselves. This adds to the character dynamics; with these seemingly negative aspects out of the way, the party members come off as more open and honest with one another.

Despite the randomized nature, the actual atmosphere of the dungeons has always been striking. And while it might be easy to give Persona 5 the edge here because the main dungeons have a set design, that can actually be a hindrance – the spaceport level is not very good and was enough for me to take an extended break from a game I had wanted to play ever since falling in love with the previous entry eight years earlier. Persona 4, meanwhile, has a reliable pace and feel. They may not be as flashy or intricate, but these dungeons work.

I also enjoy the structure of Persona 4’s social links. In Persona 5, everything is explicitly connected back to the main case in some way. But I kind of like the idea that some random woman you meet at a part-time daycare job can have a serious influence on the protagonist’s psyche. It better captures the sense of not knowing who will be the most important people around you until making that connection while also building into the slice of life atmosphere that makes this game so unique within its genre.

Where most Japanese RPGs tell epic tales of fighting against evil, Persona 4 resists those urges to explore themes closer to earth. Despite all odds, it manages to capture the same tone, hooking the player with a phenomenal cast and intriguing mystery, all built around one of the best turn-based combat engines. Some might prefer the bombastic nature of Persona 5, but as someone who spent their teenage years questioning their identity in a small town, Persona 4 has always carried a special resonance. The fact I got to experience this story during those years simply seals its place as one of my all-time favorites.

The Greatest Games: Life is Strange (2015)

Life is Strange (2015)
Developed by Dontnod Entertainment

Greatness does not mean without flaws. While most of my favorite games achieve this status by juggling several strong ideas without notable hiccups, Life is Strange has some obvious issues. Namely, this is a Telltale-style adventure game with some stilted dialogue. A narrative-focused video game with questionable writing should be a death knell. This is the story of two teenage American girls written by two middle-aged French men and it shows. I start with this because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m somehow blind to these flaws. Rather, I believe the positives of this experience greatly outweigh these negatives, to the point that these apparent flaws actually add an odd charm to the overall experience.

When The Walking Dead shot onto the scene, it promised a new era of video game storytelling. The magic wore off almost immediately once people recognized the limits. This was largely a case where that initial game was simply that good of a story and its formula couldn’t really be repeated, at least not without some inventive thinking. The gameplay itself was largely tedious. The Walking Dead showed that games could act like television, but what did that experience add if the gameplay itself wasn’t gripping and when we’ve all learned choice is largely an illusion?

There are a few things Life is Strange does differently which sets it above these similar titles. First, there’s true justification for its gameplay style. Most of Telltale’s games could have been more involved. There are moments where something like The Walking Dead feels like it’s holding back despite the medium allowing more. But the Telltale formula is a perfect fit for a modern high school mystery. Life is Strange is using this formula to tell a story which otherwise wouldn’t be told in this medium.

Secondly, Life is Strange is a game which outright acknowledges the inevitable several times over. A game like The Walking Dead carries a negative aftertaste when you look back and realize nothing you chose mattered. By giving glimpses of the future state, Life is Strange instead becomes a game where the central theme is fighting against fate. By narrowing the focus, it’s easier to accept these limits. This is a perfect example of not negating but embracing limits. While not hitting the player over the head with a golf club, this is ultimately a deconstruction in the same vein as Portal and BioShock.

I shouldn’t bury that statement at the end of a paragraph. Life is Strange deconstructs the idea of choice-based video games while playing itself straight. There’s never a moment where it seems to get caught up in its own cleverness. Instead, there’s a layer of utmost sincerity, which results in this being one of the most emotionally resonant works I’ve experienced in any medium.

Let’s cycle back to the beginning again; before we can discuss the deconstructive nature, we must first establish the surface tension which hooks us in the first place. The game begins with protagonist Max navigating her way through a violent storm before waking up in class. She heads to the bathroom, where she watches a violent confrontation resulting in an unknown girl getting shot. Max suddenly jumps back to waking up, where she is suddenly able to answer her teacher’s question due to the memory before heading straight to the bathroom and stopping the shooting. She soon realizes the girl was her now-distant childhood best friend, Chloe.

Life is Strange thus operates as a murder mystery where the murder never happens. But it’s clear from the set-up that something needs to be done about Nathan Prescott, the would-be killer. The narrative juggles a few major threads. Chloe’s best friend in the intervening years, Rachel Amber, has been missing for months. Max and Chloe themselves have a lot of catching up to do, especially for Max’s silence while Chloe was coping with the sudden loss of her father. Taking after Twin Peaks, there are a couple dozen minor characters with their own arcs. A lot of your opinion of this game will be shaped by how easily you can handle Chloe’s brash and impulsive nature. For me, I instantly adored her character.

All of these elements are reinforced by Max’s power to rewind time. The first major choice in the game involves deciding whether or not to tell the principal about Nathan having a gun. Naturally, Max can rewind time after making a choice. This also means most choices are designed where both options have some sort of negative element. By seeing the immediate outcome and being able to cycle back, Life is Strange isn’t about making choices but learning to accept them. Most choice-based games have you make a decision and that’s that; Life is Strange wants to paralyze you in the moment, forcing self-doubt and hesitance.

It’s at this point where I need to put up the necessary spoiler warning – it’s difficult to argue the greatness of a narrative work without diving into the specifics.

From an interactive perspective, Life is Strange’s strongest suit is its seamless ability to rewrite its own rules. The moment that really hits people occurs at the end of episode 2. While Max and Chloe spend the day trying to learn Max’s limits, there’s a b-plot about a fellow student who had an embarrassing video posted online. As Max returns to the dorms, this student has climbed to the roof and is threatening to jump. Max is able to somehow freeze time and work her way up to the roof, but pushing her limits like this causes her powers to temporarily stop working. The player must now talk the girl down without the ability to correct mistakes. There’s a sense of powerlessness in this moment that I’ve never experienced elsewhere, but I was lucky to have paid enough attention to her to find a peaceful resolution. A game has never left me feeling so relieved, while others had to face the despair.

Similarly, at the end of episode 3, Max discovers a new power which allows her to jump back to the time of a photograph. She naturally uses this to reverse the death of Chloe’s dad. By doing so, Max finds herself in a twisted world where Chloe has been paralyzed. This sequence telegraphs the ending, but this is also where the deconstruction really takes hold. You are given an outright meaningless choice here. Chloe asks for Max to end her misery. This alternate Chloe does not matter in the grand picture, as Max has already decided to reverse this change. Despite this apparent lack of weight, this moment is absolutely gut-wrenching. The game seems to be asking a very important question: does something have to canonically happen to carry weight? Or is it more important that both the protagonist and the audience has seen these alternatives, even if it’s something we can only share among ourselves?

Perhaps the most depressing moment comes at the end of episode 4, entirely independent of choice. Max and Chloe learn Rachel Amber had been murdered and buried just a few steps down from their hangout spot near the tracks. In a game where it feels like we have increasing power over fate, this is a striking reminder that certain things in life are beyond our control. Seeing Chloe break down as she digs is another powerful moment you rarely see in media, let alone in a video game.

This game makes a perfect pairing with Undertale because there’s only one ‘real’ path. Of course, there is a choice at the end of the game which gives two wildly different conclusions, but only one is satisfying and based around learning the message of this game. As I said earlier, this is a game about acceptance – after every awful side effect you’ve witnessed, you have to accept that you can’t actually save Chloe. To do anything besides turn back time and let her die in the bathroom would be selfish. The fact you have to be the one to hit the button is what makes this so heartbreaking.

It’s easy to write this experience off – to turn back time means literally erasing everything you have done over the course of this game. But you haven’t, for both you and Max have still gone through that experience. This is a game about grieving loss, and the story has stolen everything from you but the memories; but are our memories worth nothing?

To put it in another perspective, imagine your closest friend has died and you are given a chance to spend one more week with them; after that week, the events themselves will be wiped from the earth, but you will still remember. Would anyone reject this offer? Life is Strange is about that sort of purgatorial experience of wishing you had just a bit more time with someone you had taken for granted.

Life is Strange carves out its own unique niche, telling a story with heavy yet human themes in a setting few games explore. This is a tragic tale with a great cast. And, sure, maybe the characters overuse frankly bizarre lingo, but for a game trying to capture the spirit of Twin Peaks, these eccentricities fit perfectly.  This is the one game to truly fulfill the promise laid out by Telltale’s The Walking Dead, featuring a story powerful enough to paralyze while including key moments of interactivity that could not meaningfully be pulled off in another medium.

The Greatest Games: Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Developed by BioWare

Being the middle episode of a planned trilogy can come with some issues. The first episode gets to capture our imaginations with whatever new world the story is introducing to us, while the third will hopefully be able to tie together all those concepts established in the earlier entries. The second entry is essentially the load-bearing beam, sometimes serving as an extended second act. In something like Mass Effect, this second episode has to build up the threat established in the first game while doing little to truly advance the resolution.

While carrying this burden, Mass Effect 2 manages to excel by focusing on a different part of its narrative. Where the other two are stories of the galaxy at large, Mass Effect 2 hones in on the personal. This is Seven Samurai in space, the story of Commander Shepard as he brings together the perfect team for an apparent suicide mission.

Part of the excellence of this series is the deeply intriguing species. In the first game, the alien party members could sometimes feel overly expository, like they were teaching courses in Quarian 101. The characters in Mass Effect 2 tend to come from extremes in their society, resulting in more specific viewpoints. Samara is a justicar, a force which upholds justice within asari society. Grunt is a krogan grown in a tube purely for combat purposes. Thane Krios introduces the drell species, who appear doomed to shortened life spans after the decline of their homeworld. Saved by the hanar, Thane was raised from his childhood to be an assassin for this other species. While introducing a new species and adding heavier lore to a minor species from the original, Thane’s story is still focused on his personal struggle coping with his history and disease. Even Garrus has abandoned the disciplined nature of his species and gone rogue. This is a band of outsiders, only willing to join Shepard out of righteousness or recklessness.

Of course, plenty of other video games imitate the Seven Samurai narrative – that is essentially the central formula of the JRPG. Unfortunately, many of these games feature little beyond a bit of back story and some dialogue. In something like Final Fantasy, only a few party member ever seem to get extended focus; party members operate more as a collective than individuals.

It’s no coincidence that my two favorite RPG games are structured around learning about the party members. In Mass Effect 2, the central missions in the first half of the game involve gathering these people from their disparate locations. These episodes set the scene, establishing what makes this specific character special. In the second half, Shepard is also given the option to pursue loyalty missions, diving deeper into their personal concerns. Thus, most characters get not just one but two full segments dedicated to them specifically. Additionally, with all the inherent tension of the races and organizations involved, there are some moments where two party members come into conflict, requiring Shepard to talk them down. These are brief but necessary reminders about how this galactic civilization is barely holding itself together.

This also makes the finale more effective. On a suicide run where literally any character can die, having well-defined party members is essential. The structure of this finale is also exceptional. The game thankfully drops the good vs. bad system and instead relies on the player actually picking the right choices for each job, while also punishing the player for not investing into their ship and allies. This can obviously be negated by the save system, but much like Undertale, simply knowing the possibility for absolute failure actually exists changes the perspective. Unfortunately, the idiot Shepard I created in the first Mass Effect met an untimely end.

On a gameplay level, this is a total improvement over the original Mass Effect. This is the third-person shooter at its best, throwing in some fun extras; while Mass Effect 3 refined this further, it’s still excellent here. With the various loyalty missions requiring the participation of the relevant party member, there’s also a reason to make a full tour of each member’s ability. The level design is also a major improvement – in the original Mass Effect, side quests reused the same assets constantly. Here, each location has a unique design. Any story-rich video game I have played multiple times for the gameplay itself is an obvious winner.

Despite the middle episode of a trilogy traditionally serving as a bridge, Mass Effect 2 is the rare example which could stand on its own. The narrative dives deeper into lore beyond grand historical conflicts, the ending is perhaps the most explosive finale a game has ever pulled off, and this is all while featuring one of the strongest casts the medium has ever seen. With all of this being backed by an inventive and addictive action-RPG hybrid system, Mass Effect 2 is an unforgettable experience.

The Greatest Games: Super Metroid (1994)

Super Metroid
Developed by Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems

While Metroid Prime was a nearly perfect transition into the third dimension, I have to give a slight edge to the previous entry. The Metroidvania genre has largely stuck within the 2D realm because it’s a perfect twist on the traditional platformer. Despite its quality, Metroid Prime can be a bit unwieldy – Nintendo is at their best when they stick with simple mechanics surrounded by stellar level design. Thus, Super Metroid is Nintendo’s best game, with Samus being smooth to control yet the planet Zebes being among their most intricate designs.

To me, the Metroidvania is Nintendo’s greatest formula – there’s a reason it spawned a genre that includes it in the name. As a design, it’s easy to imitate but quite difficult to pull off. Even the franchise that paved the way has struggled to capture the magic each time – no other entry in the Metroid series came all that close to my top 100, yet the two that did managed to land all the way within the top 10. Some games which fall under the Metroidvania umbrella don’t really seem to fit – they have a wide world to explore, but they’re light on the backtracking. Many of these are still great games, but that has more to do with them being great platformers than particularly notable Metroidvania games. Others go all in on the backtracking, but that sometimes gets tedious. It takes a certain balance to actually make backtracking feel fun. What I said about the other Metroidvania games featured in this project is true of Super Metroid – the game is designed to let the player explore, yet there’s always a sense of where to go next.

What separates a Metroidvania from an open world game is that many Metroidvania games are linear – their massive world is more a puzzle to be solved. The player must explore to find the right sequence, keeping track of certain areas which are blocked off. This can be through doors locked behind items the player doesn’t have, areas which require certain protective gear, or even a ledge which is just out of reach.

Even more than the 2D Mario games, Super Metroid is a hard game to praise with words. When I praise its best features, it sounds as though I am describing the Metroidvania genre in general. This is the danger of being so influential – what were once unique traits become seemingly generic. But Nintendo has been at the forefront of a lot of genres and mechanical evolutions. And like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Metroid both serves as a revolution and a refinement. This paved the way for the Metroidvania yet is also one of the finest examples. Perhaps the most important evolution is the introduction of a map – a Metroidvania without a map sounds ridiculous now, but the first two Metroid games did without. This little bit of navigational assistance went a long way toward complex yet reasonable designs.

What can make or break a Metroidvania game is the pacing – go too long without giving the player a new upgrade which allows them to explore an old path and the linearity begins to show. Which, yes, this is admitting that the genre is built around a certain sense of illusion, but that’s true of most art. The feeling of open exploration is more important than actual implementation. Super Metroid is bulky enough to feel significant yet paced where there’s a constant sense of progress.

Another winning feature of Metroid is the setting. Super Metroid does little beyond setting the stage before dropping the player off on Zebes – outside of the NES era, this is a rare Nintendo game to start the player off with little instruction. The bosses are fairly intimidating due to their alien design and lack of lore. Super Metroid is oozing with a sense of quiet isolation. It’s not just being free to roam a big area that makes this a classic – like the later Soulsborne games, every new region feels like stepping into forbidden territory.

Super Metroid is the perfect showcase of everything that has made Nintendo an important company: simple mechanics, stellar level design, quality of life innovations, minimal yet effective storytelling – this is 2D gaming at its finest.

The Greatest Games: Dark Souls (2011)

Dark Souls (2011)
Developed by FromSoftware

According to legend, Dark Souls is a relentlessly brutal video game experience that will punish the player for the slightest error. People shudder in fear at the thought of losing all their currency by dying once and failing to get back to the same spot…almost as if they’ve forgotten that many other video games completely wipe your progress since the last save. While the future games by FromSoftware may have gone too far with skill-based gameplay, the true genius of the original Dark Souls is that it finds challenge through knowledge.

I need to start this with a controversial claim. Dark Souls has an awful gatekeeping community that has decided for whatever reason to shame people for using summons, telling them that doing anything other than solo play is robbing them of the ‘true’ Dark Souls experience. This is a core element of the design which is actually quite revolutionary – why would FromSoftware put in the effort to make this system if not to be used? It’s like if the Pokemon fanbase developed the Nuzlocke challenge during Red and Blue and spent the next two decades chiding new players for not releasing their Pokemon upon fainting.

I say this because part of the ingenious design behind Dark Souls results in it being two games at once. Alone, this is a brutally challenging action RPG. With a summon or two, this transforms into an accessible dungeon crawl. Dark Souls gets away with not having difficulty options because the difficulty slider is built into the mechanics. As someone who believes the true genius of the game largely lies in its level design, these options are key in making this a truly universal masterpiece.

The other side of summoning is being summoned. The obvious reward for this is humanity if you assist in beating the boss, but the true benefit of the system is being able to safely get a sense of the level ahead without risking your own souls. The game also provides the option to invade another player, which can also go a few ways. Some want to be honorable duelists, while others want to ruin someone else’s day. The fact you can only summon by also opening yourself up to invasions gives the mechanic a sense of risk – a reasonably skilled player is more dangerous than any enemy, especially if they can trick you into an enemy’s aggro range. Despite the relatively straightforward narrative progression, this game offers tons of ways to play. The best option is to play the way which results in the most fun.

Let’s cycle back to the game itself. The opening level is a work of art. You start down in a cell and work your way out, finding your first bonfire easily enough. You walk through the nearby door and suddenly the first boss leaps down. You have virtually nothing at this point. You might assume this is a trick, one of those annoying fights where you’re expected to lose, only to have a cutscene play out of your inevitable defeat. If you stick to this, you find yourself back at the bonfire. Hopefully, you’ll eventually notice the open door in the back corner. This leads to the rest of this short area, where you will arm yourself with a proper weapon and shield. A dying man will give you the estus flask, which allows the player to heal a few times. Going up will lead to a ledge where you can attack the boss from above, dealing a significant chunk of damage – but going down opens a locked door back to the bonfire.

This opening is a microcosm of the game at large, subtly teaching everything you need to know. That first encounter with the boss encourages spatial awareness. When the game starts hiding enemies behind corners, you need to maintain a sense of all possible openings. That next stretch is a proper tutorial, teaching the player how to fight a few common enemies while avoiding obvious traps. And then there’s the fork in the road, which suggests heading straight into the boss chamber might not be the best idea. This game is loaded with shortcuts, encouraging the player to explore every inch of the level to make sure they can’t reduce the length of the bonfire run.

The first main area of the game, Firelink Shrine, has a few possible exits. You will likely stumble into the graveyard and be slaughtered by some surprisingly strong skeletons. You might also stumble into a submerged city plagued by ghosts – I imagine most of us turned back as soon as we saw this intimidating sight, but a brave player might stumble across an upgrade for their healing for their troubles. This introduces another often overlooked feature – this is a game which encourages running as much as fighting. Though you lose souls upon death, you keep whatever item you find – it can be worth it to make a mad dash through a high-level area to get a rare item.

Running is a consistently strong strategy in this game – anyone who thinks there’s too much time between bonfires and bosses is too caught up in the mindset of a traditional RPG, where you should fight every enemy for the experience. This is what I mean when I say this is a game based more on knowledge than skill – once you learn an area and get stuck on the boss, you absolutely should be sprinting past the common enemies. You still need the skill to avoid their attacks, but this is typically a better strategy than forcing yourself to fight a dozen enemies before the boss. Yet the genius of the level design is that you can’t really sprint the first time through – these levels are filled with little alcoves, and one wrong turn might leave you surrounded by enemies.

Fighting, sprinting, summoning – the game is loaded with options to overcome these challenges. In fact, during the first playthrough, I think the real challenge is learning all the possibilities – even better than summoning a strong ally is finding a powerful sword and mastering the upgrade system. I absolutely tore through the back half of the game my first time through after making this investment.

There are two major reasons any of us bothered to stick with this despite the initial challenge. One, this world is beautiful. Every location has a striking sense of detail, from the visual design to the level layout – this is one of those games where every inch of the world has a purpose. Though this is not a Metroidvania, there are several moments where you will take a shortcut and realize this seemingly distant location was right next to something familiar. This creates a feeling of containment, that you truly are exploring a single massive location. The lore also manages to be both richly-detailed and vague, which helps form the foreboding atmosphere.

Secondly, this is sword and shield gameplay at its finest, like if The Legend of Zelda was consistently challenging. While sprinting can be important in navigating an area, combat itself is methodical. Yet the game rarely allows the player to simply hold up their shield and wait for an opening. The stamina system punishes too much defensive play, and some enemies require a quick dispatch. This game is all about adapting to the current situation, making every new enemy a new experience. And a major reason I prefer this to the follow-ups is that these enemies never feel particularly cheap (except for one particular stretch in the back half; this probably would be my favorite video game without Lost Izalith and the Bed of Chaos) – boss fights in Dark Souls III seem to involve relentless attacks with few obvious windows to strike back. The later games feel as though From really bought into the public perception of the series, and their focus on challenging combat has also let the world design slide.

The original Dark Souls stands as a rare game to be both challenging and accessible – victory truly feels like overcoming the odds, yet the methodical design means most players can eventually adapt if they only have a little patience and pay attention. This is a game most of us will struggle through, but the genius is revealed if you ever start again – that same opening which you spent hours conquering will likely go down without a fuss, all because you now understand the strange new language this game has laid down.

The Greatest Games: Metroid Prime (2002)

Metroid Prime (2002)
Developed by Retro Studios

Nintendo sometimes insists on certain terminology for their games. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an ‘open-air’ game, whatever that means. Metroid Prime, meanwhile, is not a first-person shooter, despite being in the first person and involving shooting. No, no, Metroid Prime is a first-person adventure.

Genres themselves are nebulous – when I began this project, I tried to classify each of my top 100 games by their main genre. “Action-Adventure” is a real doozy – what is The Legend of Zelda series doing in the same general category as both Uncharted and Shadow of the Colossus? Several others pull from so many genres that any term becomes virtually useless. Metroid Prime is one such game, featuring elements from first-person shooters, platformers, action-adventures, and, perhaps most importantly, the Metroidvania.

The hesitance to call this a first-person shooter stems from an obvious source. The grand majority of games in the genre are about taking proper aim and attempting to outshoot the enemy. Here, Samus can use lock-on, so combat revolves more around strafing while having a continuous shot. Anyone coming for traditional FPS gameplay would have been disappointed. In many ways, this feels more like a variant on something like Zelda than an FPS. At the same time, it would have been nice for Nintendo to embrace the term – Metroid Prime perfectly showcased how the first-person shooter genre could explore different ideas, and it’s clearly in line with later works like BioShock. The emphasis does not always have to be on the shooting itself.

But the core experience of Metroid Prime really is exploration in the Metroidvania fashion – without the Prime trilogy, the Metroidvania might as well have remained a term exclusive to 2D platformers. It’s actually surprising. Indie developers churn out a dozen 2D Metroidvania games a year, and Metroid Prime was one of the most critically acclaimed games ever upon release – why has no one else made a successful attempt? The fact Metroid Prime still stands as the best 3D Metroidvania simply because it has no real competition after 18 years is mind-boggling – the closest things are the Soulsborne games and Arkham Asylum, but neither of those games have this specific brand of exploration as the core focus.

What makes the Metroidvania genre so special is a feeling of interconnectedness. Even while something like Half-Life features one clear journey from point A to point B and thus remains connected, the idea of trekking through earlier territory remains rather unique. Open World games obviously allow revisiting locations, but they also lack the signature level design which makes going to the right place at the right time so key. The best Metroidvania games balance a line between partial openness and subtle guidance.

Metroid Prime would probably be a classic simply for existing in a space few other games have even attempted. But, clearly, it goes beyond that. Tallon IV is a beautiful world. Even the ice section is a classic, with a gently ambient theme that’s hard to forget. Like the best Zelda games, every inch of the game world feels like it has purpose. Adding to the exploration is Samus’s ability to scan for more information. The older Metroid games rarely gave direct exposition, and this is a nice way to include more without being as intrusive as a cutscene. The game maintains a heightened sense of isolation throughout, and there are moments which might even be described as scary. This game isn’t afraid to drop the lights completely at certain points. Space is a big and empty place, and the Metroid series has always captured that atmosphere well.

Nintendo led the pack when it came to transitioning their classic series into 3D. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time established several concepts which have become essential for the medium at large. With Metroid, Nintendo took an extra generation to figure things out, and they went in a surprising direction – was anyone asking for the Metroid series to be converted into first-person? The insistent terminology seemed like something to worry over, suggesting Nintendo was desperately trying to appease the established fan base. Yet when the final product hit, it was clear they captured the magic of Super Metroid in a new form. Metroid Prime may not have redefined the industry like Mario and Zelda, but this was a top-notch take at what might be Nintendo’s most remarkable formula.

The Greatest Games: Silent Hill 2 (2001)

Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Team Silent)

The original Silent Hill was one of the first big hits to match the cinematic possibilities of third-dimensional gaming with a truly mature narrative. Silent Hill 2 amplifies this experience. The story is better, the monsters scarier, the atmosphere denser. This is everything a survival horror game should aspire to be.

The biggest element which makes Silent Hill 2 stand above the other games in its franchise is how it conceptualizes the town. The dense fog and darker realms have always been intense, but this game adds a narrative aspect which casts a shadow over the entire experience. Silent Hill 2 presents the idea that the town is a reflection of any visitor’s inner psyche. Thus, every element of the experience can be analyzed as symbolic of James Sunderland’s experience.

This means that the monsters are more than mere obstacles. Being two sets of feminine legs, the mannequins come off as obvious symbols of sexual frustration. But many other monsters are related to James’s repressed memories, meaning their meanings are obscured through a lack of information. As with anything, fear of the unknown weighs heavily, made even worse by the expectation that nothing here is inexplicable. Visual design can only go so far, but knowing these come from within makes everything so much worse.

Pyramid Head has become an iconic villain not because he personally has depth but because he represents James’s darkest parts. His abuse of the mannequins suggests something being very wrong before we find out why. In a game otherwise filled with feminine monstrosities, it is the masculine Pyramid Head who relentlessly pursues James throughout the town. In fact, his masculinity is so overdone that his obvious phallic symbol actually weighs him down – yet that hindrance never stops this symbol from being as terrifying as intended.

Video games rarely confront sexual themes. Additionally, many games which do largely take a juvenile approach. There will be sex jokes, there will be scantily clad women, and there might even be an embarrassing cutscene as a reward for romancing a party member. Buried within all the surface horror of Silent Hill 2 is one of the medium’s greatest takes on human sexuality. In a game about people being eaten alive by their inner fears, the narrative never shies away from acknowledging this as an obvious source. It’s rare for a video game to even have a meaningful opportunity to confront issues such as lust and sexual violence, and Silent Hill 2 dared to tackle these themes in an era where even the most narrative-rich contemporaries were still focused on supersoldiers and summoners. This game so easily gets under our skin because its horrors are both human and familiar.

Even without these themes, Silent Hill 2 is absolutely terrifying. The first encounter with Pyramid Head is one of my favorite moments in gaming. The scariest moment in a franchise like early Resident Evil is a zombie jumping through a mirror – a literal jump scare. Here, the most intimidating sequence is Pyramid Head simply standing at the end of a hallway, cast in an eerie red light. There’s a grate between the two of you, giving only the slightest sense of protection. You must walk down this hall, toward the monster, to reach a room, and he’s gone when you step back out. This establishes a lingering dread – now you know what the monster looks like, but it felt so much better when you had a sense of where he stood. And, naturally, the game forces you to find your way to the other side of that grate. This is a work which understands that the expectation of a threat tends to be worse than the threat itself.

One of the worst feelings Silent Hill 2 gives is the sense that James is doing this all to himself. Other horror protagonists are typically trapped or at least pursuing a solid goal, but James made the trip to this town and keeps going even when things appear off. In a horror film, it’s easy to chide a character for making poor decisions. Having to make those poor decisions, on the other hand, can be a nauseating experience. The game keeps diving into deeper and darker places, and the dissonance between player and protagonist helps build the unease.

With ever more realistic graphics, video games have only grown better at providing scares. Yet this early PS2 game manages to be completely terrifying, even as someone who played it for the first time in the last few years. There’s an unease to this experience like few others, like you are doing something wrong by pursuing this course of action. Even as the Resident Evil characters dive deeper into secret labs, there’s always the sense that they’re ultimately trying to get out – getting out is at the heart of nearly every horror story. Silent Hill 2 sticks with us because James Sunderland seems dead set on getting in, and we’re being dragged along for his self-destructive ride.