25. David Bowie – “Life on Mars?” (1971)
from the album Hunky Dory
“But the film is a saddening bore
Because I wrote it ten times or more”
David Bowie was an alien among men. At least, that’s what he wanted us to believe, and works like “Life on Mars?” did a convincing job. Lyrically, this is an evisceration of popular culture, where cartoon idols are propped up and all art is a rehash. The title is a surrealist expression of a simple longing – to go to some distant place where everything is new and unexpected. But as his words hit hard, he also presents himself as if at a distance. His thoughts are filtered through a girl with mousy hair, and he uses her point of view to position himself as an objective observer. Yet nothing he speaks is in easy terms, his phrasing forcing us to contemplate his meaning.
His instrumentation plays out in a similar fashion, at once familiar yet twisting in unexpected ways. After kicking off like a piano ballad, “Life on Mars?” shoots into space during its chorus with the assistance of a string arrangement. The effect is heightened by Bowie’s deliberate timing. The verses feature a beat between every line, but the chorus begins to pair certain lines together without a break. By giving each line room to breathe until the chorus, a subtle sense of urgency takes over. This transforms his drawn-out delivery of the title line into a cathartic release.
David Bowie is a genre chameleon, and the fun of “Life on Mars?” is how much he positions himself like a traditional pop singer on a big stage while speaking an unfamiliar tongue before shooting skyward. The showmanship is the height of glam rock’s aspirations, while the arrangement is one of many pieces that solidified his status as the king of art rock. “Life on Mars?” sounds simple, but Bowie worked his magic to make every second burst with life.
24. Perfume Genius – “Queen” (2014)
from the album Too Bright
“No family is safe when I sashay”
To exist as a queer person is a political act. This should not be so, but the same is true of every minority population. The big difference is that queerness has no intrinsic surface indicators – but, bigots being bigots, there are certainly ideas. Perfume Genius harnesses these images on “Queen,” bringing to life an impossible amalgamation of contradictory stereotypes. At once, he is both a diseased fop writhing on the floor and an all-powerful indoctrinator roaming the streets to convert defenseless straight men. The chorus really says it all. “No family is safe when I sashay,” or any other act coded as queer. Because, at the heart of this, it is not our actions but our mere existence that threatens these people. This is about as angry as protest music gets, and Mike Hadreas is the perfect figure for the message, a slender man no reasonable person would find genuinely threatening – and yet…
The verses are guided by a harsh rock arrangement, a grungy guitar serving more ambience than riffs. This is all build-up to that central line, which is punctuated by a piercing, whirring synthesizer. Adrian Utley of Portishead supplies this element, and this harsh transition is the stuff of art pop legend. David Bowie played an androgynous alien while subtly dodging firm statements on his sexuality – on “Queen,” Hadreas plays the Bowie so many young queer people wished him to be. Yet he never retreads, instead updating Art Pop sensibilities for the modern era, morphing grunge, glam, and electronic into his own singular form. This is all in service of giving a voice to the most vulnerable among us, the queer people who cannot mask their identity, so often thrown under the bus by those trying not to appear “too gay.” Perfume Genius is a walking reminder of their power, and “Queen” is his finest anthem.
23. Smashing Pumpkins – “1979” (1995)
from the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
“On a live wire right up off the street
You and I should meet”
It really all begins with this song. A faint memory before I really formed memories, shot back into my mind by its appearance on the soundtrack to a video game that otherwise left little impact on me. The fact this so effectively triggered my nostalgia while itself being about nostalgia is only a coincidence. In my earliest days of truly exploring popular music, Smashing Pumpkins were the band to beat, with their alternative sound working more as an endpoint. Alternative rock was an umbrella term bridging a ton of disparate styles, and Smashing Pumpkins were the great explorers of the era. Yet where most of their songs come off as a reflection of an earlier time, “1979” stands strong as Corgan’s vision of the future.
“1979” has an ethereal energy, one that makes its popular success surprising. There is a sense of endless looping between the rolling drums and the repeated sample of Corgan’s ghostly vocals. “1979” simply glides throughout its length, hitting upon a higher energy during its chorus but even then remaining at its steady pace. Against all odds, the cycling energy sustains itself. “1979” is alternative rock as a mood piece.
In the shadows of the grunge movement, “1979” also served a much-needed slice of hope. Billy Corgan tended to brood, yet even he managed to offer a burst of positivity here. Mainstream rock had rarely sounded this summery since the 60s. Yet, despite its popular success, I cannot think of a single other song that has captured a similar feel. Corgan went all out while putting together Mellon Collie, and though the album has a few misses, “1979” is a perfect testament for the need to keep exploring.
22. Franz Ferdinand – “Take Me Out” (2004)
from the album Franz Ferdinand
“I know I won’t be leaving here with you”
Outside of a few stray artists like The Black Keys, rock and roll saw its last big hurrah as a mainstream entity with the garage rock revival movement of the early 2000s. Franz Ferdinand snuck onto the scene with their own twisted take on post-punk, and “Take Me Out” became the unlikeliest of mega hits. This is a song drawing from a genre that never made it big in America that hit the Billboard Top 100 only to endure as an all-time classic. And it’s not like they succumbed to pop leanings – even seventeen years on, this resonates as a particularly odd piece, but an oddness that somehow added to its accessibility. The fact it is simultaneously about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and a relationship gone south is only the surface strangeness.
The big moment is obvious. At the 54-second mark, “Take Me Out” transitions into an entirely different song. After an intro that suggests a track only beginning to take off like all its forceful contemporaries, Franz Ferdinand do the opposite. This is dance-rock at a glacial pace, a song that wants you to feel every note. The low tempo makes a stomper, a jerky start-stop rhythm that is nonetheless danceable. This is all supported by a killer riff. The slow yet aggressive delivery made Franz Ferdinand out to be the most self-assured rock band in ages. The legend, of course, would fade – so many rock acts of the era would collapse under the expectations set by their debut. But the hype behind “Take Me Out” was never an overstatement – rock had rarely felt this fresh several decades after it began.
21. Missy Elliott – “Get Ur Freak On” (2001)
from the album Miss E… So Addictive
“Quiet! Hush your mouth
Silence when I spit it out
Hah-choo! In your face
Open your mouth, give you a taste”
Missy Elliott’s signature surrealism reached its zenith with “Get Ur Freak On.” The production here is out of this world – even 20 years on, it shows no sign of age. Timbaland picked up the beat while travelling through India, using a tumbi and tabla to help create a sound rarely seen in mainstream popular music. Stretching beyond bhangra, an ominous synthesizer rises during the chorus. Mix in Missy’s rapping skills, and you get something as totally unique as it is immediately effective.
Missy Elliott knew exactly what Timbaland had captured – the lyrics essentially find her bragging about the imminent success she has on her hands. Not to be outdone by the music, her own delivery blows it away. This is a song loaded with sudden stops. Missy absolutely commands the scene, interrupting the groove but never losing the rhythm. Few songs have used silence so effectively – Missy Elliott makes dance music as much as she makes hip hop, but she demands spectacle. To actually meaningfully make something out of the energy “Get Ur Freak On” presents requires true inspiration on the dancefloor.
Hidden beneath all this energy is an understated tension. The synthesizer never quite steals the scene, but its creeping presence makes itself felt. Meanwhile, during the third verse, the lead instrument slowly but surely transforms into something I can only compare to the horror strings of a Carpenter film. In an unusual twist for hip hop, “Get Ur Freak On” has an extended instrumental outro that just lets tension build. Missy Elliott typically leans toward the more playful side of hip hop, and while “Get Ur Freak On” was constructed in a similar vein, the final result is so extreme that little else compares.
20. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
“Just that something so good just can’t function no more”
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is almost impossible to separate from the events surrounding its creation and release. Ian Curtis had committed suicide a month before this single dropped, and the title resonated enough that his wife added it to his gravestone. If “Atmosphere” played at a higher level, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” finds Curtis stewing over his personal mistakes. This is a raw portrait of two lovers clinging onto hopelessness, a song shrouded in overwhelming despair.
But actually listening to the song, there seems to be something else at play. New Order did not come out of nowhere; Joy Division were already toying with synthesizers, and the glossy production here so perfectly captures a band in transition. In a way, it is tonally jarring – Ian Curtis’s deep voice does not pair well with this soft sound. But this dissonance is key to the enduring success. There is no sense of irony as would be found in plenty of synth-pop songs. Instead, the synthesizer on “Love Will Tear Us Apart” suggests a man trying to keep his head above water. Though we know Ian Curtis failed in this regard, it does a disservice to his art to paint it with a lens of inevitability.
When we fixate on the tragedy, we miss why so many people care in the first place – not many people got into Joy Division simply because they heard the lead singer killed himself. Songs like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are a perfect showcase for music as a form of limitless self-expression. A man can write about his failing marriage and form it into a cold dance track pushing the boundaries of genre expectations. A lot of us have experienced heartbreak, and though few of us take such an extreme path, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” still embodies a universal sense of slowly crumbling relationships.
19. Buddy Holly & The Crickets – “That’ll Be the Day” (1957)
from the album The “Chirping” Crickets
“You say you’re going to leave, you know it’s a lie
Because that’ll be the day when I die”
Where Elvis Presley helped bring rock and roll to the masses, Buddy Holly’s short career did just as much to push the genre in a new direction. It is not surprising to learn that the first song The Beatles recorded, back when they were The Quarrymen, was a cover of “That’ll Be the Day.” Holly’s guitar jangled, a sound that would define so much of popular rock from the 60s onward.
Buddy Holly played with a lighter edge than many of his contemporaries. After the electric opening, the guitar disappears through much of “That’ll Be the Day.” The actual sound that defines much of this track consists of harmonizing, a simple bass strum, and some soft percussion. The vocal portions may as well be a pop song. But Holly wields the guitar with precision, and its sudden reappearance during a short instrumental break halfway through is mesmerizing. Buddy Holly played up stark contrasts – his work was a direct reference point on Pixies’ Doolittle, and you can find a taste of their signature quiet-loud dynamic so many decades earlier here.
The arrangement on most early rock tracks are simple, but songs like “That’ll Be the Day” are proof that simple sometimes means better. The vocal sections effortlessly roll along, and the electrifying break is as effective today – the little punches from the drum near the end are the perfect icing. Dozens of major artists cite Holly as a direct influence, and it is easy to understand why. His little songs cut straight to the point – many artists could learn from his pointed brevity.
18. Phoebe Bridgers – “I Know the End” (2020)
from the album Punisher
“I’m always pushing you away from me
But you come back with gravity”
Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is a song I always wished I could love as much as I respect. The idea of this drawn out, quiet epic exploding into a moment of cathartic release is a killer idea, but it does not stick the landing for me. The payoff weighs heavier than the slow build. Led Zeppelin excelled at hard rock, but something about the middle section collapses under the weight for me. Someone out there had to be able to do better.
While listening through Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher album for the first time last year, “I Know the End” erupted as an unexpected but immediate answer. Where Led Zeppelin were hard rockers momentarily restraining themselves, Phoebe Bridgers is a quiet folk artist pushed to a boiling point. When “I Know the End” begins, there is no inherent anticipation for more – Bridgers could coast off that initial energy to an equally quiet endpoint. But then we reach the second section and the pace picks up while strings join the previously sparse arrangement. Soon, Sufjan Stevens-style horns set us on a point of no return. Where I find the middle sequence of “Stairway to Heaven” to be a chore, the middle here is perfection. And, against all odds, this seemingly meek folk singer closes out with an adrenaline-fueled crescendo of absolute terror.
Despite being recorded earlier, “I Know the End” serves as a perfect encapsulation of the nightmare that was 2020. After a personal introduction, stark descriptions of the American South set up an apocalyptic tone – she remarks upon a billboard reading “The End is Near” before stating it has already arrived. In the year of COVID-19, this was a wounding blow, and that cathartic scream which closes the song out is a feeling everyone could understand.
17. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best” (2015)
from the album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
“I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny”
“Avant Gardener” was among the more surprising breakthrough hits of the 2010s, a piece that felt as much like a ramble as a song. Barnett made the structure adapt to her words, a bold choice that paid off. “Pedestrian at Best” finds her playing with a bit more structure, a genuine rock hit that could have easily been pulled from the height of the grunge movement. One might expect her unique lyricism and delivery to play a smaller part with such an urgent sound, but her familiar rambling only adds a punch.
Rock lyrics are rarely this densely packed. Picking a key line for this one was difficult – how to choose one when literally every line is exceptional? She pairs the distorted guitars with anxiety-ridden self-abasement, her exhausted pleas matched perfectly with breathless delivery. This might actually be a genuine panic attack set to music. Though loaded with complex verses, the true standout is the chorus. Barnett holds back on her more intricate wordplay to get in several straightforward jabs. The payoff is contained in the final word, ‘funny’ drawn out for several seconds as she oscillates up and down. Like “Avant Gardener,” every layer of this song flows in bizarre yet perfect harmony – it just happens to feature a central riff rock fans might drool over.
An unexpected trend of the last few years involved seeing several of my favorite women in indie music burst forth with previously unseen energy. “Seventeen,” “I Know the End,” and “Pedestrian at Best” are only the peak. I will occasionally remark upon rock dying as a mainstream entity, but that has only given room for new voices to revitalize certain sounds with unexpected twists. “Pedestrian at Best” is all the fun of garage rock with rapid-fire delivery that should even impress Bob Dylan.
16. The Smiths – “This Charming Man” (1983)
“I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
This man said ‘it’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care’”
Openly queer songs in the popular sphere were uncommon until the last decade or so. “This Charming Man” is one of the rare early hits with only marginal room for debate over its subject matter – I don’t understand how anyone can read this as anything but an older man trying to convince a younger man to cancel his wedding and get with him, but people will go to great lengths to deny queer themes unless spoken in the most explicit terms. Morrissey, of course, is not one to make things straightforward. With his boyish yet elevated vocals, he sings not as if paired with a jangle pop sound but like a crooner from some non-specific era. “This Charming Man” captured a wide audience despite its controversial subject matter in part due to its otherworldly feel. The language on display has more in common with early 20th century literature than popular music, providing a safe distance.
The rest of the band firmly grounds this in the 80s. The rhythm section adds an infectiously danceable beat. Johnny Marr’s opening guitar is a wondrous hook, and he maintains an impossibly bouncy melody throughout. The instrumentation alone would make a perfect update on The Beatles’ jangly sound, but Morrissey’s frankly bizarre stylings add such a unique edge. Though The Smiths would release several albums after this breakthrough single, nothing quite captured the exaggerated vocals on display – we might not have been able to take the band seriously if Morrissey insisted on being this extra all of the time, but it makes for one enduring classic. And as much as I can’t stand Morrissey now, it would be wrong to deny the comfort I found in this song during my own coming out process.
15. Kate Bush – “Wuthering Heights” (1978)
from the album The Kick Inside
“Heathcliff, it’s me Cathy
I’ve come home, I’m so cold
Let me in-a-your window”
Nick Drake, John Cale, Vashti Bunyan – there are many artists I love for their knack to make songs which sound pulled from an alternate history. I get a similar feeling from Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” but I realize there is no specific era it invokes. This is something completely of its time, art pop at its peak of pure openness. The instrumentation bobs along, a dense wall of sound like little before or since. An epic guitar solo near the end only adds to the strangeness – what, exactly, was Bush trying to accomplish?
Nevertheless, “Wuthering Heights” topped the charts for four weeks in Britain. An easy explanation is it asks to be analyzed – it’s difficult to hear this song for the first time and not want to play it back to try and figure it out. Kate Bush’s piercing soprano conjures a forest spirit, but it is her unusual cadence that really lingers. Her lyrics are practically indecipherable as she pauses mid-statement and warbles through half the words. The colossal soundscape and poignant piano suggests a greater meaning even as you fail to parse her message.
Basically, the appeal of “Wuthering Heights” is similar to a surrealist film. You know there must be some meaning buried beneath the odd layers, and even once you cave and look up the lyrics, another mystery appears. What inspired Kate Bush to deliver these lines in such an impenetrable way? This is an eternal enigma, but the inherent intrigue of such an unusual piece has caused “Wuthering Heights” to grow on me even as I remain completely baffled. Whatever Bush’s reasons, the end result was a work of singular beauty.
14. The Who – “My Generation” (1965)
from the album My Generation
“I hope I die before I get old”
The Rolling Stones might have been sold as the bad boys of rock, but The Who really pushed rock and roll to a place of rebellion. Youthful angst had been a theme in popular music since the beginning, but The Who played up a punk aesthetic long before the idea of punk had formed. “My Generation” is a middle finger to the establishment – the fact Roger Daltry stutters over the ‘f’ in “why don’t you all f-fade away” does not read as coincidental. Even as The Who’s generation became the very establishment they once rebelled against, “My Generation” has passed down as an ageless anthem.
The Who played harder than their contemporaries. “My Generation” is a messy track, full of sudden stops and explosive drum fills. You can hear the birth of hard rock in that chaotic finale, harsh guitar chords mixed with Keith Moon’s forceful drum roll. This is the connective tissue between rock as a popular form and those who would eventually rebel against soft sounds. Yet it endures beyond its cultural relevance through the sheer amount of fun on display. The stuttered lyrics make a perfect karaoke jam, and the call and response chorus form an easy crowd pleaser. The groovy bassline adds enough structure for dancing, especially through a shotgun blast of short solos in the middle.
The appeal of “My Generation” is simple – this is proto-punk a decade out that hits harder than most acts that followed. The 1960s were a transformative era for popular art, and few songs signaled things to come as clearly as this one. The snide lyrics add just the right dose for eternal relevance.
13. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids” (2012)
from the album Channel Orange
“But your love ain’t free no more”
Contemporary R&B is rarely associated with sweeping epics, so “Pyramids” resonated on a new level immediately. This ten-minute journey takes us from ancient Egypt through an electronic soundscape to the dirty clubs of the modern day. Frank Ocean tells a parallel story of two women named Cleopatra, one a queen and the other a prostitute. He uses everything at his disposal to draw both parallels and distinctions, from a change in vocal delivery to the overarching sound. As much as the lyrics journey through time and space, “Pyramids” feels like a full tour of pop, R&B, and so much else – a little bit of everything played exceptionally well. The impossible genius is that he segues so subtly that all these stray ideas truly blend together; it’s difficult to take “Pyramids” in as pieces instead of a whole.
Part of what sells this monolithic piece is Ocean’s chill demeanor. While tackling something truly epic, he sits back and lets the music wash over him. No matter where this song journeys, he’s cool and in control. The language of the first half puts him at a distance, only for him to be drawn further into the picture by cruder lines. Ominous electronic bits suggest the crushing nature of our society – does the narrator have power over his own story? At the end of the final verse, Ocean loses his cool and laments, as though he has no understanding of how he ended up here. We listeners might be at just as much of a loss once the track closes, but that is a testament to Ocean’s brilliant, ever-changing yet always evocative structure.
12. The Knife – “Heartbeats” (2002)
from the album Deep Cuts
“To call for hands of above to lean on
Wouldn’t be good enough for me”
When I was a closeted teenager without any romantic experience, I once imagined “Heartbeats” was what love would feel like. After paying closer attention to the lyrics and delivery, I picked up on another layer, one of melancholy and uncertainty. I adjusted my naïve expectations, realizing like so many synth-pop songs that this one must be playing with a certain level of understated irony. It was only through my years of personal experience that I realized my initial reading was closer to the truth – that to fall in love is to likely set yourself up for pain, but the journey outweighs the endpoint.
The fact such a resonant song comes from The Knife is the shocking part. Their sound would increasingly evolve toward the aggressive and atmospheric, so something this serene seems impossible. The truth of their career is they knew how to manipulate the synthesizer to inspire extreme human emotions, and though they eventually specialized in panic and desperation, they knew just as well how to generate a sense of bittersweet nostalgia.
The clapping percussion breathes immediate life and the central synth-line rides that energy like a wave. Karin Dreijer’s delivery is filled to the brim with mixed emotions. They have to completely stretch the final syllable of the chorus to force a slant rhyme, but does it ever work. The synthesizer is nearly as dizzying as their later works in its high oscillations, but here it is used for good, a positive imitation of the intrigue that makes us fall for someone in the first place. “Heartbeats” is all about falling in love at first sight and then realizing something did not work out, but still celebrating it happening in the first place.
11. LCD Soundsystem – “Losing My Edge” (2002)
non-album single, later featured on LCD Soundsystem
“I’m losing my edge
To better-looking people
With better ideas and more talent
And they’re actually really, really nice”
LCD Soundsystem’s debut single feels as much a manifesto as a song. Before he was making his own music, James Murphy would like you to know he was the coolest DJ to ever rock New York City. He is here to set the record straight – that he is the reason Daft Punk is cool, that he in fact played a part in Suicide and was too good for Captain Beefheart – please, ignore the fact he was born after that band formed. Murphy is at the center of everything, but some other DJs came along and started playing the same songs. Murphy would not let that slide and decided to create his own musical diatribe.
Of course, this is all very tongue-in-cheek. James Murphy plays an old man shouting at the youngsters who dare to act like they get the music he grew up with, as if it somehow belonged to him. All of us music aficionados know that one person who insists their knowledge is more valuable than everyone else’s because they were ‘there,’ and Murphy loops it through several in-jokes. Though he begrudges the younger generation for the ease they have in connecting musical dots in the Internet era, the outro is as much an embracement – if we live in a world where anyone can pirate (and now stream) any band at any time, why complain when you can convince people to check out all your favorite bands? This may sound like a snide track at first, but once you work out all the references and realize it’s a giant string of impossible scenarios, it’s a perfect work of self-deprecating humor.
10. New Order – “Blue Monday” (1983)
non-album single, included on certain editions of Power, Corruption, & Lies
“But if it wasn’t for your misfortune
I’d be a heavenly person today”
Deciding to kick a song off with another completely different song is a bold choice – “Blue Monday” does not transition between its parts as much as it stutters and kicks over. This works because both sequences are distinctly oppressive, the first guided by a high velocity drum pattern. The connective tissue grinds everything to a halt, switching the drumbeat to a more deliberate pace. With this new beat, New Order take the initial synth-line and rework it into the bassline. “Blue Monday” does not abandon its distinct intro as much as it cannibalizes each element for a different purpose.
Beyond its structural ingenuity, the cohesion of ideas throughout the central sequence is mesmerizing. Bernard Sumner sounds completely unlike himself here, pointedly monotonous and with a deeper pitch. Synthetic backing vocals occasionally hum like an angelic choir. An instrumental break following the first verse ends in a chaotic flurry, first taking off like a jet plane and then a jackhammer before stuttering, as if threatening to again reset the beat. “Blue Monday” is as ominous as it is danceable, but not in the way Joy Division worked – there is no dissonance between message and music. Part of this is the emotion on display, turning to anger instead of sadness. This is the musical equivalent of blowing off steam, which is underutilized in dance music despite being an emotion that gets people off their feet.
“Blue Monday” is the moment that captured New Order transitioning into the ultimate synth-pop band. There is no need for irony here, a band in complete control of their sound no matter the instrument. The dire atmosphere pulsing through this song is untouchable – accomplishing this with such high energy is truly astounding, showcasing dance music with no emotional limit.
9. The Breeders – “Cannonball” (1993)
from the album Last Splash
“I’ll be your whatever you want
The bong in this reggae song”
After the Pixies disbanded, Kim Deal focused more attention on her side project. “Cannonball” is not so much a revolutionary track as it is a summation of its era. In a way, it feels like Deal trying to one-up the chaos that defined the Pixies – in one song, she rotates through nearly as many ideas as Doolittle in its entirety. Yet this is in no way a retread. The Pixies had rarely sounded this summery and upbeat.
“Cannonball” takes a full minute to truly take off, first starting with a twenty-second distorted harmony. This is followed by a distinct drum pattern played against the cymbal stand which only loops twice. This is then followed by the bass, which similarly loops twice with no other sound present. Finally, a drum beat is added with nothing else being removed. Clearly, these false starts were not enough, so they add in a brief drum break before the wobbly guitar finally joins. And then another guitar. And then a piercing whistle. Finally, the vocals start, but that is no sign “Cannonball” has truly found its footing – it refuses to ever truly settle. After a single verse that pretends to signal a traditional song, Deal bursts into a chorus so distorted to be unintelligible. The second verse ends in a notable pause. By the end, “Cannonball” has established its own internal logic, but it remains distinctly odd as a listener.
As bassist for the Pixies, Kim Deal learned how rhythm can tie together even the most eclectic sounds. No matter how freeform “Cannonball” gets, that signature bassline guarantees an accessible groove. The carefree chaos on display here feels so emblematically X-treme – this may not be the biggest alt rock song, but it might just be the most alt rock song.
8. Blur – “Girls & Boys” (1994)
from the album Parklife
“Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they’re girls, who do girls like they’re boys
Always should be someone you really love”
When contemplating “Girls & Boys,” it is hard to focus on anything other than that chorus. After all, the song eventually abandons the verse-chorus structure entirely only to repeat those words over and over until they blur into a meaningless void. Is it a cry of joyous hedonism or manic desperation? Whatever the meaning, it’s a hook that hits with as much force as the best house loop. As Damon Albarn churns through it, backing vocalists chime in any time he says ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ with the emphasis of drunken clubbers who can barely keep up. Nine simple words make up an impossible configuration, and the insistence that it ‘always should be someone you really love’ only makes it more confounding. This whole song could be read as mind-numbingly vapid if it was not so pointedly disorienting – Blur are absolutely playing us for fools from every possible angle.
The instrumentation feels equally indecisive. “Girls & Boys” shows shades of synthpop and alternative rock, disco and punk. This is the true genius that leaves the listener mesmerized enough to endure the lyrical nonsense. “Girls & Boys” sits at an intersection between so many ideas that it is in equal parts familiar and boundary-defying. The opening synthesizers bubble and pop, and a distorted guitar is merely added on top to transition toward the first chorus. Droning like a wind tunnel in reverse casts uncertainty over the whole affair. To keep things interesting, the final chorus section drops out all but the electronic blips for the first cycle, adding more instruments back in with each repetition. As Albarn sneers his way through the entire song, one might suspect he is only aiming to annoy us. Nevertheless, this is dance-pop perfected.
7. Television – “Marquee Moon” (1977)
from the album Marquee Moon
Lightning struck itself”
Television was making post-punk while punk was still in its infancy. “Marquee Moon” starts off easily enough, not reaching far outside the traditional rock structure. But even in its simple beginning, two guitars play off each other. Both evoke a sense of contemplation, one brooding and the other urgent. With the bass joining in, a syncopated cycle kicks off. Even with four instruments and vocals, there is a persistent sense of silent space beneath it all. “Marquee Moon” is floating somewhere in the sky, always visible but at a distance.
The chorus truly takes off like a rocket into space, but even more effective is when Television quietly drifts away from this explosive moment. The third verse leads into the big moment – after four and a half minutes of playing a familiar if complex rock track, the song transitions into a guitar solo to end all guitar solos. For five full minutes, Tom Verlaine weaves through an impossibly high space, only climbing higher when it seems he has reached a breaking point. Halfway through, the guitar slows down like it is taking a victory lap, but then the drums help kick it back toward the stars for one last hurrah. In a way, finding this track as I started getting into music ruined my appreciation for guitar-driven rock. For me, nothing has compared to this solo.
Part of what makes “Marquee Moon” so compelling is the pristine sound quality. Without distortion and at these high tones, Television play the electric guitar as if it is something of simple beauty. To have the epic solo go out not with a bang but a gentle gleam sets this apart from so many artists happy to settle for the exact same definition of cool.
6. Patti Smith – “Gloria” (1975)
from the album Horses
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”
Punk became a different beast in the years that followed Patti Smith’s classic album, but no single line quite captures the punk ethos like the opening line of “Gloria.” The iconoclasm does not stop there as Smith transforms Them’s classic rock song into a lesbian anthem. Patti Smith sneers like the brattiest punk; her music just happens to play with a bit more complexity, to its benefit.
“Gloria” starts at a slow tempo, rolling along like a snowball until it bursts into the classic chorus. Along the way, Smith shows off her dirty poetic imagery as she falls for a girl she sees ‘humping on a parking meter.’ She details her successful seduction, only to finally ask her name after Smith has already ‘made her mine.’ The theme is as much sheer provocation as it is a declaration of punk as an open space for outsiders. As Smith hits upon the original tune, she has transformed it into something truly revelatory. Van Morrison’s original delivery is somewhat lascivious, yet this more explicitly sexual take turns the spelling of Gloria’s name into a celebration.
So many artists have shied away while covering love songs about the same gender – Patti Smith chose to embrace the idea and then some. Smith herself may not be queer, but I cannot overstate the impact the opening line had on me. If being gay is enough to send me straight to hell – well, I might as well have as much fun as I can here on Earth. I may not actually be that hedonistic, but there is an unusual comfort in the idea. Patti Smith took a classic, made it self-affirming and queer, and then rocked even harder.
5. Kate Bush – “Cloudbusting” (1985)
from the album Hounds of Love
“But just saying it could even make it happen”
When starting this project, I had not planned for it to take over three months. It was intended to be a brief break while suffering from writer’s block while attempting to start my next novel. Luckily, in that time, a few new ideas have formed, all sharing the same world but able to stand alone from my previous manuscript. The opening line of this song oozes with orchestrated personal relevance – “Cloudbusting” inspired me to name part of my fantasy world after Wilhelm Reich’s estate.
The influence does not stop there, but I hope not to waste this space with the details of a (hopefully only currently) unpublished novel. What matters here is that some songs conjure up ideas of another time and place, and this song resonated with me to the point that I have literally created a universe around the feelings it sends me. As an aspiring author, “Cloudbusting” stands alone for me as a direct influence in musical form.
The central structure of “Cloudbusting” might be best described as a march driven by cellos and layered with other strings. A sense of urgency closes in as, in typical Bush fashion, the music continuously builds before shifting into a dizzying climax. It never quite lifts off from its steady pace, but it has no need. Bush floats above it all, her naively hopeful chorus mixing with the strings to make a wondrously bittersweet mood piece. “Cloudbusting” leaves me longing for some other world. The ingenuity of the track is in its inspiration, a biography by Peter Reich. Bush perfectly captures the magic of a child looking with wonder at their father as the government rips him away. Wilhelm Reich was not a good person, but Bush paints a fantastic world where his outlandish pseudoscience might have been true – where just saying it could even make it happen.
4. Grimes – “Oblivion” (2012)
from the album Visions
“‘Cause when you’re runnin’ by yourself
It’s hard to find someone to hold your hand”
Before she got involved with the second richest man on Earth, Grimes played a convincing part as the most vulnerable pop artist in ages – yet she always fought back in equal measure. “Oblivion” dizzyingly tackles a time she had been assaulted. Making the most of synth-pop’s knack for irony and dissonance, she sings as light as a feather over a whimsically aggressive synth-line. Her voice frequently doubles up on itself, creating the sense of a magical being, like a woodland nymph pondering why anyone would choose to harm something so beautiful.
The key to “Oblivion” is in its back half, when a second synth-line joins in and completely flips the script. What was once whimsical turns sinister, twisting into something best described as nightmarish carnival music. As much as it bubbles like a carousel tune, there is also an edge of synthesized voices humming along that can be genuinely discomforting. Throughout this back half, Grimes repeats a single line over and over, “see you on a dark night.” This at first reads as the lasting impact of her experience – even as she sleeps safe in bed, her attacker always threatens to interrupt her dreams. But as the music fades to just that second synth-line, a new meaning takes hold. The closing section feels like an uneasy revenge tune, a burst of self-empowerment.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the whole of “Oblivion” is straight-up cool. This is synth-pop as an intimidation tactic, a seemingly nonsensical combination on paper. These synth-lines are as good as it gets, and the contrast with her voice creates something unlike anything else. Dancing along never feels like it is at the expense of its subject matter – “Oblivion” is a taunt, showing Grimes could move on and grow something beautiful out of her pain.
3. Bruce Springsteen – “Born to Run” (1975)
from the album Born to Run
“I want to know if love is wild, babe
I want to know if love is real”
A friend of mine once described “Born to Run” as sounding like unicorns galloping through a field. I think he meant this as a putdown, that the keyboard here suggests something all too precious. I think it is an apt description but from the opposite angle – few truly masculine presences in music have embraced such unabashed displays of hope. Part of this is that Springsteen paints such an intimate picture through his lyrics – hope is part of the picture, so we can question the naïve optimism of his narrator. It’s not so much trying to convince us but rather to capture the spirit of a young man dreaming of leaving his home behind. We don’t have to believe he will succeed – we just need to believe he believes in himself.
“Born to Run” captures a young artist going all in on what makes him unique – this is a song that could have broken Springsteen as much as it made him a superstar. It rockets forward with inimitable power – though Springsteen returns to a similar sound throughout his career, it is never at this velocity. Clarence Clemons takes center stage with the coolest sax solo to hit the charts, while a keyboard and glockenspiel add a sense of starry-eyed wonder. Springsteen eyes a bigger picture than rock and roll while perfectly retaining the energy.
Among my generation, Springsteen seems to be treated like the epitome of dad rock cheese – “Born in the USA” being consistently misunderstood in the popular consciousness certainly did not help matters. But where I also once saw something cloyingly sentimental, I now recognize Springsteen as a strikingly earnest figure. “Born to Run” is a work of unabashed wonder. My teenage self might be embarrassed to learn this now ranks as an all-time favorite, but sometimes I need a quick dose of positive energy.
2. The Velvet Underground – “Heroin” (1967)
from the album The Velvet Underground and Nico
“Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life”
The first time I heard “Heroin,” John Cale’s wailing electric viola literally gave me a headache. Which is to say, I immediately fell in love and never looked back, an eternal fixture of my top two songs since I made my very first list a decade back. The appeal is in no way straightforward as I claim of so many of my other favorite songs – on an album full of proto-whatever, “Heroin” remains the one song without significant connective tissue to music at large. Every element is so committed to supporting this sole idea that nothing could be taken or expanded upon. This exists at the forefront of experimental rock while shooting past the negative implications to land safely in the art rock zone – no matter how hard this song goes, it maintains a strange accessibility.
“Heroin” finds four instruments and the human voice in perfect discord. The two guitars generate an introspective backbone while Moe Tucker’s drumming starts with a low energy pattern. At first, Cale’s viola joins to merely drone in the backbone, Tucker’s drumming picking up speed. “Heroin” is marked by crescendos, in which the drums threaten to skitter off while the viola begins to sear. Lou Reed delivers a quiet certitude, musing over the chaotic state of the world and citing heroin as the easy escape. Cale’s viola is the drug itself, Tucker’s frantic drumming the rush. By the final crescendo, things truly go off the rails – Moe Tucker momentarily stops drumming, so overwhelmed by the chaos. The viola transitions into a wailing monstrosity, yet Reed’s certain voice ties everything together. This is a song so ahead of its time that it only dates itself through a Vietnam reference. “Heroin” may not be pleasant, but it exists as a riveting experience of music without limits.
1. LCD Soundsystem – “All My Friends” (2007)
from the album Sound of Silver
“I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision
For another five years of life”
At the heart of “All My Friends” is an insistent piano loop, a single chord which occasionally breaks itself in two in a frantic oscillation. For the first thirty-five seconds, the piano plays alone, drilling through your skull – like “Heroin,” the first time I heard this song, I ended up with a headache. The piano endures for the entire length of this epic song, perhaps picking up energy but never shifting from that loop. This is an instrument with more thematic than melodic purpose – in a song longing for familiar comforts, it serves as a piece of unattainable and overwhelming nostalgia. To capture the conflicting emotions, the central representation of desire cannot itself be changed – instead, LCD Soundsystem modify the space around this almost tumorous loop, shifting its meaning through contextualization instead of chord changes.
To make such repetitive cycles work is a central trick in electronic music, but LCD Soundsystem choose to otherwise play this with rock instrumentation. A drum patter and bass translate the central energy to a dance rhythm, while the guitar makes a delayed appearance and infrequently bursts forward with its own comparatively subdued longing. By the end, the elements meet on equal ground, the piano one part of a massive whole. The longing remains, but with so much more clarity.
James Murphy’s lyricism really drives it home. Few rock songs have painted such a convincing picture of growing up. In a genre once dominated by youth culture, Murphy takes a moment to play the old man in the room. Without missing a beat, he leaps from vowing to live a life without regret and then lamenting all the relationships he has neglected. The fact such a reflective song clicked with me when I was merely sixteen feels unlikely, but Murphy speaks to an eternal cycle – is the end of high school not the dawning of these realizations, that so many of these people you once knew will soon become nothing more than distant memories? “All My Friends” has comforted me in my most lonely days, a lesson to never take my social circles for granted. James Murphy and company took a single discordant piano note and infused it with endless emotional resonance.