My Top 250 Songs Part 10 (#25-1)

25. David Bowie – “Life on Mars?” (1971)
from the album Hunky Dory

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“I recall
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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“‘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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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

Key lyrics:
“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.

My Top 250 Songs Part 9 (#50-26)

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

Key lyrics:
“And it keeps coming and it keeps coming
And it keeps coming and it keeps coming
And it keeps coming and it keeps coming
And it keeps coming ‘til the day it stops”

Of the many songs about death, few capture the initial numbness as well as “Someone Great.” Though ostensibly a synth-pop track, the opening synth-line here exists more to drone than to bounce. It plays somewhere between a warning signal and a phone call you are trying to ignore. Another synth intrudes, whirring up and down, fading in and out like a dawning horror. An introspective bass soon follows, with the actual lead sound taking over a minute to appear. This slow build intro covers every inch of coping short of acceptance before James Murphy says a single word. This is a soundscape many artists could learn from, the coldest electronic sounds representing the rawest human emotions.

And that is only the intro. James Murphy’s lyrics and delivery cover the same expansive ground, shuffling through the minor details after hearing the news. The weather fails to match the mood, morning coffee leaves him empty. Murphy appears to have been so shaken up that he can rarely confront the subject directly, turning a rather specific relationship into a universal lament. Amidst the dense instrumentation, a glockenspiel underlines his every syllable. This lone acoustic instrument floats apart from the others, a quiet ray of hope.

“Someone Great” reaches its high points when Murphy twice loses his typically verbose tongue. After the third verse, he can do nothing but remark upon the crashing waves of realization. “It keeps coming, and it keeps coming,” little reminders of what this person meant always striking at unexpected times. By the end, he seems to find acceptance but still lacks the words. What is there to say when someone great is gone? Life goes on, but there will always be this droning void where a person once stood.

49. The Beach Boys – “Surf’s Up” (1971)
from the album Surf’s Up

Key lyrics:
“The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now”

“Surf’s Up” is among the most effective titles I know, painting this track as The Beach Boys’ statement of purpose when the lyrics themselves are too dense to interpret. No matter how many boundaries they pushed on even their most radio-friendly hits, their origins as a carefree surf rock band would always hang over them. “Surf’s Up” lives in an opera house at risk of a tidal wave; how far must a band go to change their popular image? The phrase plays on so many levels, from a mocking callback to a lament. The surf is up, meaning it is over.

Where many of their classics around this era play with a constant soundscape, “Surf’s Up” maintains a sparse arrangement. Like “Good Vibrations,” this shifts between several distinct movements, but “Surf’s Up” plays to the most extreme of their baroque sensibilities. An extended middle section consists of nothing but a piano and voice. This is the sound of a popular band shedding their image entirely to stew in their own artistic notions. A constant shift in key leaves even the quiet moments unpredictable. For this one track, The Beach Boys have truly left their popular audiences behind.

But then we reach the finale, which expands into one of their strongest harmonic arrangements. They know what their audiences want, and they know what works. “Surf’s Up” captures The Beach Boys as introspective masters. Leaving the harmonizing for an explosive finale may have sabotaged their chance at chart success, but it stands fifty years later as their boldest statement.

48. Hercules and Love Affair – “Blind” (2008)
from the album Hercules and Love Affair

Key lyrics:
“I wish the stars could shine now
For they are closer, they are near”

Despite being part of the disco revival movement, “Blind” hits upon the true undercurrent of the original era that was largely overlooked once the genre made waves. The decline of disco has been treated as a celebratory act, as if underdog rock and roll toppled an unexpected giant. Really, the disco scene had been a safe haven for minorities, particularly queer people in a time when they had few others. Disco turning into the next big fad only to be brutally tossed aside tore that subculture apart.

“Blind” is as bleak as dance music comes, a harrowing tale of introspection turning to fear. Many songs about coming out focus on the external factors, these days serving as reassurance. “Blind,” instead, hits upon the realization that life will never be as easy as once imagined in the ignorance of youth. Though the lyrics stay vague, ANOHNI’s powerhouse delivery makes the message clear. The life that lay before you has been whisked away, the future now an unknown. Messages like this are so necessary; though bleak, this song was a reminder during my own coming out that I was not alone in anxiously pining for the simple life I had been promised.

“Blind” is a comfort song, a track that invites you to dance away those negative feelings. As ANOHNI belts out those despairing lines, there is a sense of power underneath. Between her wavering vocal styling, the slight pause in the percussion, and those horns, disco has never felt more alive.

47. James Blake – “Retrograde” (2013)
from the album Overgrown

Key lyrics:
“Ignore everybody else
We’re alone now”

Though James Blake had been toying with R&B on his first album, “Retrograde” saw him going all in. The result is the best of both worlds, an electronic R&B hybrid brimming with soul. So many fellow electronic artists have made their careers by hiding behind their music, but James Blake stands strong by putting himself in front. Perhaps he got lucky, to have an angelic falsetto to pair with his killer production. This combination has allowed him to craft love songs with an apocalyptic backdrop. “Retrograde” sonically suggests two lovers in a desolate wasteland with only their emotional tension to sustain them.

“Retrograde” opens with nearly a minute of wordless humming above a light backdrop, his intonations rising as the percussion enters. There is a ghostly element here, and his hum lingers in the background as he additionally jumps into a lead part. After a short verse, the instrumentation is overtaken by sirens. The sonic assault grows increasingly dire as Blake gets looped into the chorus. Though the backing part changes, his voice is rarely alone – yet this pairing only reinforces the desolate feel. As he repeatedly insists “we’re alone now,” one can only assume the two lovers are suffering their loneliness apart.

Blake appears defeated by the end, closing out with another minute of wordless yet soulful humming. “Retrograde” is like the shadow of a relationship that could have meant something, the type someone hangs onto well past its expiration. The bookends suggest it is long over, the central section a pained begging for there to have been a deeper meaning.

46. Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime” (1980)
from the album Remain in Light

Key lyrics:
“Same as it ever was, same as it ever was”

I have known and loved “Once in a Lifetime” for over a decade now, yet I still have no idea how to put it into words. Part of the joy of New Wave music was seeing a bunch of artists really exploring what music could do, and none quite approached a limit like this one. It’s odd, because “Once in a Lifetime” is about as ubiquitous as music comes. Talking Heads in collaboration with Brian Eno tapped into some unusual combination that nevertheless resonated with the masses, a track that has endured for its indescribable quality – one can dive into the apparent Afrobeat influences, but the final result exists in its own sphere.

The effect it has on me is easier to describe. The looping instrumental elements are hypnotic, pairing well with David Byrne’s ramblings about the ceaseless passage of time. The sonic elements trickle just a step above ambience, giving enough space that one could easily zone out to it if not for Byrne’s vocals. Which, this is all to say that Byrne’s psychotic preacher persona ties everything together. As he rambles off odd phrases, the lack of immediate meaning is overshadowed by his delivery. This is a man trying desperately to sell you something, and you might just buy it despite not knowing what ‘it’ is. Unusual exclamations like ‘this is not my beautiful wife’ resonate for the bizarre imagery they generate. Could it be possible we are all watching our time slip away with only half our attention? Or are all of his words meaningless fluff to get us hooked on this singular groove? Either way, I am all ears.

45. Foals – “Spanish Sahara” (2010)
from the album Total Life Forever

Key lyrics:
“Forget the horror here
Leave it all down here
It’s future rust, it’s future dust”

“Spanish Sahara” is the slowest of slow builds, a creeping work of existential dread that builds from a quiet post-rock ambience to a furious, arena-sized rocker. Though I immediately find myself drawing comparisons to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” there is as much of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” – few other songs feel like a singular, gigantic crescendo. “Spanish Sahara” starts so low as to force you to bump the volume up, with a change so gradual you’re likely to have it blasting from your speakers without noticing. What better way to represent the act of trying and failing to get a horrific image out of your head?

Yannis Philippakis plays his part well, a wispy voice in the distance. Even as the instrumentation grows around him, he captures an air of fragility. The synthesizers build like rolling waves behind him, pushing him higher while simultaneously threatening to drown him out. By the end, he changes his position from the horrified to the horror itself, finally matching the volume of the instrumentation right as it reaches its peak. As the lyrics fall into a loop, they suggest a numbing cycle, a horror passed down from one man to another.

“Spanish Sahara” is a seven-minute musical odyssey, one that grows on me with every listen. Plenty of artists have attempted a colossal slow build, but few manage such thorough success – from the sparse, glacial opening to the dense crescendo back down to the muted outro, this feels as singular as it does expansive. By treating its big finale as a dreadful culmination instead of a cathartic release, “Spanish Sahara” leaves a devastating impact.

44. A Tribe Called Quest – “Check the Rhime” (1991)
from the album The Low End Theory

Key lyrics:
“So play the resurrector and give the dead some life”

A Tribe Called Quest played to their own rhythm. On “Check the Rhime,” the group is so chilled out that their delivery comes off as conversational. This laid back attitude grants a unique appeal – the rhyming is on point, and the easy pace puts the wordplay at the center. To add to the positive vibes, this is a group more concerned with building themselves up than tearing others down; the second verse kicks off with Phife Dawg bragging about how nice he is, while he and Q-Tip spend much of the track checking in with each other. Yet they do not approach this track without a purpose. Their defense extends to the hip hop scene at large, biting back against commodification from record companies and MC Hammer’s pop take.

The backing samples are key in generating an energy the two rappers sidestep. Most essential is a horn-heavy instrumental section that kicks off the song and eventually backs the chorus, a short burst that doubles up on itself by adding bass halfway through. There is a fine line to balance between easygoing and lazy, and the funky rhythms push “Check the Rhime” to the right side. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg simply sound assured of themselves.

“Check the Rhime” is an effective counterpoint to a lot of mainstream ideas about hip hop. The Tribe avoids foul language on this track, but their rejection of pop appeal shows this choice is not for radio play. Their topics of celebration are markedly humble, yet they are still celebrating. This is a song that demands respect for the scene, to keep hip hop a place of expression for the otherwise disenfranchised.

43. Radiohead – “Let Down” (1997)
from the album OK Computer

Key lyrics:
“One day I am gonna grow wings”

Though overshadowed by the singles, “Let Down” is the true heart of Radiohead’s OK Computer. This lacks the bombast and hooks, but Radiohead instead achieve a state of tranquility few rock bands ever aim toward. Much of OK Computer is a journey of conflicting emotional states, and “Let Down” appears the most straightforward in that regard. Thom Yorke remarks upon feelings of being crushed, subverting every positive thought the moment it crosses his lips. “One day I am gonna grow wings,” he sings, only to morph this angelic image into a science experiment gone wrong. Even when the backdrop is as simple as a busy city, Radiohead captures a sense of hopelessness.

“Let Down” could have been an ordinary Radiohead song, dark lyrics juxtaposed against a magnificent soundscape. But then it pushes further, the instrumentation growing subtly more intense. Though Yorke keeps cutting himself down, a point is made through his repetition – no matter how many times he tells himself it won’t happen, something inside him is keeping his attention on growing those wings. The song never reaches his escape, but more than any other Radiohead song, “Let Down” suggests there is reason to hope.

The finale is a genuine moment of beauty. Yorke duets with himself, sustaining angelic notes with one breath as the other fights through his inner turmoil. Instead of ironic grace, the music is allowed to play out not with the sentimentality Yorke rejected earlier but legitimate sincerity. No other song can make me feel so simultaneously hopeful and crushed by the weight of the world.

42. LCD Soundsystem – “Dance Yrself Clean” (2010)
from the album This Is Happening

Key lyrics:
“And if we wait until the weekend
We can miss the best things to do”

“Dance Yrself Clean” will always hold a special place to me. In the middle of high school, after getting really into the Rock Band series, I was looking up a song and stumbled across a website called Acclaimed Music, which is dedicated to compiling various critic lists into one master list. Recognizing and liking a few of the higher songs convinced me to go through the top several hundred songs. Despite having a song in Grand Theft Auto IV, LCD Soundsystem were pretty much unknown to me. Nevertheless, the tracks I heard from them really clicked.

This Is Happening became the first album I truly anticipated, and anyone who has listened knows the power “Dance Yrself Clean” holds as an opening track. It starts at a practical whisper as James Murphy weaves through the worst kind of party. Friendship has been a key topic for LCD Soundsystem, and “Dance Yrself Clean” takes the longing from “All My Friends” and replaces it with people who really do not care. This disillusionment seems to be an odd place to kick off; so many albums want to immediately grab your attention, but Murphy appears happy to meander. The percussion is strong and a gentle synth ambles through, but the building tension is only hinted at through growing nonverbal ahhs.

Suddenly, right around the three minute mark, traditional rock drums barge in, paired with a pounding synth-line. “Dance Yrself Clean” immediately transforms into a full-bodied dance track without missing a beat, Murphy’s resigned attitude exploding into a righteous anger. This is the quiet-loud-quiet formula extended to epic length. By design, this is meant to be an album opener, but it struck such a powerful chord that it now stands among their defining tracks. LCD Soundsystem know how to harness dance music as an emotive force.

41. Dirty Projectors – “Stillness is the Move” (2009)
from the album Bitte Orca

Key lyrics:
“After all that we’ve been through
I know that I will always love you”

Dirty Projectors could easily pass as the most hipster of hipster bands, but there is something about “Stillness is the Move” in particular that resonates on a more accessible level. It is still undeniably odd; the rhythm here is something that expects the listener to adjust to its unusual angles. But so much of the final project feels like a celebration of the female voice. Though typically led by David Longstreth, he takes a backseat to Amber Coffman, who shows a range on level with the best pop vocalists.

“Stillness is the Move” is a love song by way of existentialism, taking most of its lyrics from German film masterpiece Wings of Desire. But like the source material, it takes existentialism as a call to action, a reason to find our own meaning. It suggests a world full of possibility and takes on love as a backbone. The avant-garde elements reinforce this idea, showing the most unfamiliar tones can suggest beauty if given the necessary space to grow. Dirty Projectors refuse to meet halfway, but the reward for getting on their level is unlike anything else.

Though a thing of beauty, “Stillness is the Move” also has a cool edge. The instrumentation frequently pauses as though stumbling over itself, a remarkable groove that fashions a unique concept for dancing. Every element chases the same auditory high as Coffman’s voice, achieving a rare serenity. This is pop music as an endpoint, the result of a musical madman reflecting on the past several decades of music and shooting for an inimitable but engaging sound. “Stillness is the Move” is a shimmering monolith.

40. Pulp – “Common People” (1995)
from the album Different Class

Key lyrics:
“You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go”

Great art can transport us to very specific moments, and “Common People” is a crowning achievement. Jarvis Cocker spends these six minutes tearing into a rich young woman who has decided to slum it up for a bit, ruminating on all the issues she will never comprehend due to her easy escape. I’ve certainly never met someone like that, but Cocker manages to get my blood boiling anyway. In many ways, this song is a rejection of my initial statement – how much can we really understand an experience through the eyes of outsiders? But the subject of Cocker’s ire goes a step beyond, imposing herself on a world where everyone else is just trying to live their lives.

Outside of its subject matter, “Common People” buzzes with all the best elements of Britpop. A bubbly synthesizer sets the scene, the opening segment gentle. Each further section adds another little detail, a growing wall of sound that maintains its simple appeal. The easygoing sound effortlessly picks up energy during the first bridge and only lets up during a brief moment of restraint in a later verse. Pulp subtly up the tension throughout the entire song, never falling into an easy groove as the lyrics constantly evolve.

Jarvis Cocker gives a distinct performance, his growing exasperation fully selling his ire. In a scene which seemed defined by a certain level of smugness, Cocker tears that attitude down as much as he plays it up. He treats the girl with as much condescension, but his self-awareness makes him the hero of this particular piece. Few artistic movements have had such an obviously emblematic piece like Britpop had “Common People.”

39. The Smiths – “How Soon is Now?” (1984)
from the album Hatful of Hollow

Key lyrics:
“I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does”

“How Soon is Now?” is far from a typical Smiths track. Even brooding, the band tended toward a jangle pop aesthetic, but this track finds them embracing a post-punk feel. Morrissey takes on a more muted presence, choosing to strike with a few key phrases than dominate the entire song. With the relatively small number of lyrics, Morrissey pulls off some of his most relatable pained lines. A breakdown in the middle sends shockwaves. Morrissey seemingly encourages his listener to try and find love at a club, only to immediately remark upon the inevitable failure. “How Soon is Now?” is a club hit self-aware of the overwhelming feeling of trying to go out and meet people.

Johnny Marr and his reverberating guitar stand at the forefront of “How Soon is Now?” If Morrissey’s words paint a doomed picture, Marr’s echoing guitar suggests a full-on apocalypse. The cataclysmic tone plays on two distinct levels, an emotive cry and a sparkling rhythm. The guitar as an instrument rarely touches upon such a striking combination, bridging together pure atmosphere and dance music. A slide note serves the ultimate strike, a shivering dose of dread preying upon the song’s vulnerability.

Despite his unbearable demeanor, Morrissey can tap into human emotions better than most lyricists. Pairing that with a guitar part which would sound more at home in a subtle noise rock track grants an unforgettable power. “How Soon is Now?” is inimitable, a fusion of so many aesthetics that plays to the best elements of them all. With this track, The Smiths briefly shed their twee proclivities to play the coolest band on earth.

38. Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” (1993)
from the album Pussy Whipped

Key lyrics:
“In her kiss, I taste the revolution”

Bikini Kill is about as punk as punk gets. When so many punk acts vaguely raged against authority while speaking largely in universally relatable terms, Kathleen Hanna and company simply did not care if their works connected with people at large. Fully embracing the riot grrrl movement, they made songs for a very specific community and did it well. “Rebel Girl” is designed to be grating to outsiders, a politically-minded lesbian anthem that finds Hanna literally shrieking to get her point across. This is an effective repellant against ninety percent of straight men.

The enduring success comes down to that sense of specificity. “Rebel Girl” captures a very unique type of young woman who rarely gets an anthem of her own. Hanna weaves an interesting narrative, not just focusing on the titular rebel girl but having her narrator fall madly in love. This creates a stellar sense of time and place, calling back to an era when queer young women were finally allowed to develop their own communities. Whether or not Hanna herself is queer, “Rebel Girl” signaled the riot grrrl movement as having open arms.

Purely as a sonic piece, “Rebel Girl” has a distinct flavor. Opening with a marching rhythm, Bikini Kill suggest a revolutionary takeover. Hanna’s abrasive delivery lends her a bratty self-assuredness, and several moments find her seemingly trailing off while hypnotized by the subject of her affection. The guitars are insistent in their repetitive tone, centering Hanna’s vocals while adding a forceful edge. By design, “Rebel Girl” is not to everyone’s taste, but it is a prime example of the punk movement as a voice for marginalized communities.

37. Underworld – “Rez” (1993)
non-album single

Before Underworld captured the seediest dance club on earth with “Born Slippy,” they crafted one of the most uplifting pieces of electronic music ever recorded. Though “Rez” lacks lyrics, it kicks off with a bubbly synth line and only moves skyward. This is progressive trance, jumping from one familiar tone to the next, ever building upon its foundation while leaving the listener hypnotized throughout. A prime example of the human side of electronic music, “Rez” taps into a sense of elation I struggle to describe. How can I put into words the way these tones affect me? All I know is that I can turn this ten minute track on and immediately be drawn into a better state of mind.

The constant sense of motion is part of the appeal. For whatever reason, “Rez” leaves me feeling like I’m sitting in a subway car, bright red tunnel lights flashing by with every beat. As a song, it asks nothing of me, instead moving me of its own accord. In fact, the idea of dancing along seems impossible. The sense of motion it generates is an internal rhythm, one that cannot be replicated in the physical realm.

Describing a song in these terms makes me feel like a madman, but “Rez” has earned my vulnerability. Some art denies an easy explanation. “Rez” is something primal, an electronic piece from the 90s that sounds inherently and eternally futuristic. In it, I hear wonder at the cosmos and an ever-evolving sense of what it means to be alive.

36. Sufjan Stevens – “Chicago” (2005)
from the album Illinois

Key lyrics:
“I made a lot of mistakes”

On Illinois, Sufjan Stevens fuses a religious journey with stark portraits of my home state. On the central track titled after the biggest city, he makes the striking decision to cut back from solid descriptions and instead take on a metaphysical state. After all, what can be said about such an enormous place in one song? Sufjan has to play on a higher level to capture the spirit of the city.

In the religious context of the album, “Chicago” acts as the pilgrimage song – of course Chicago would be the metaphorical Mecca of Illinois. The track begins with chimes like an elevator – one can imagine stepping out on the top floor of the former and forever Sears Tower and standing in awe of the sprawl below as the other instruments lift off. Sufjan Stevens is a maximalist, and his wall of sound is out in full force over this track. The horns, the strings, the backing vocals; if Sufjan was trying to capture a personal confrontation with God, he very well achieved it with this arrangement.

At the same time, a contradictory sense of motion pervades this track. Sufjan appears restless, repeating “I made a lot of mistakes” over and over even as the choir reassures him. These moments of doubt are what make Sufjan such an effective Christian in the popular sphere. He explores the rough side of faith, and even his moments of self-discovery are tinted with regret. Yet he chooses to let us get lost in the epic grandeur, his voice fading into the background of the final chorus before an extended outro. Even as he questions himself, Sufjan wants us to feel a sense of wonder.

35. The Smiths – “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (1986)
from the album The Queen is Dead

Key lyrics:
“And in the darkened underpass
I thought, ‘Oh God, my chance has come at last’
But then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask”

I have remarked numerous times upon love songs reading more sincerely to me from unusual sources. I trust goth rock artists who are stepping outside their comfort zone more than I do pop singers who have made their career out of loving declarations. But even acts like The Cure and Nick Cave tend to hold back on their morbid impulses when writing from the heart. With “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” The Smiths manage an improbable balancing act between grotesque imagery and utmost sincerity. Though Morrissey is known for an acerbic tongue, this song works all the better with straightforward language.

Though Morrissey holds back on his witticisms, he makes up for it with the extremity of his meaning. So many love songs rely on exaggeration, and this song takes a violent route by calling upon car accidents. Whether it’s by a double-decker bus or a ten-ton truck, Morrissey would be happy to die with his lover. This chorus sounds like the declaration of a crazy person, but it also speaks to a certain truth – when you really love someone, sometimes those morbid thoughts spill out.

The backing music is a complex arrangement, with synthesized strings swelling behind Morrissey. The whole piece is dense, a flurry as mixed as Morrissey’s emotions. Though ostensibly a love song, it plays from the angle of someone uncertain about so many things. The song closes with Morrissey repeating the title nearly a dozen times, and it’s never quite clear how we should take it. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” succeeds by so perfectly capturing a youthful mix of angst and passion.

34. OutKast – “Hey Ya” (2003)
from the album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Key lyrics:
“Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance”

On The Love Below, Andre 3000 stepped outside of hip hop to explore a myriad of other genres. “Hey Ya” is his take on pop, and it might just be the greatest mainstream pop song ever recorded. The rhythm is immensely danceable, the lyrics as memetic as they are surprisingly introspective. Andre 3000 sings with such range, and his ironic delivery grants a greater sense of depth than most pop hits. This is a rare song that came along and seemingly spoke to every major circle.

As someone born in 1992, no single release has felt bigger than “Hey Ya” – perhaps Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” is the only competitor in the 21st century. As I noted while writing about “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” some songs feel so essential to my development as a listener that I struggle to think of them in objective terms. “Hey Ya” was among the first songs to truly speak to me – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was the first album I ever bought. But where I struggle to appreciate the familiarity of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Hey Ya” has the opposite problem – how can I comprehend anyone viewing it as less than stellar? The brilliance feels intrinsic to me – for me to put another song on the same level as “Hey Ya” is the greatest praise I can give.

The success is simple. “Hey Ya” takes a little bit from every popular genre and refines it into a singular form. The extended bridge is an absolute cultural monolith – ‘what’s cooler than being cool,’ the alright breakdown, ‘shake it like a Polaroid picture.’ Most songs are lucky to get a single line in the zeitgeist, but “Hey Ya” seemingly imprinted its entire form on the popular consciousness. Yet Andre 3000 commands our attention, emphasizing these catchy phrases while letting the darker lines remain understated – just how many people have sung along to ‘what makes, what makes’ without quite parsing ‘what makes love the exception’ as the endpoint? Andre 3000 predicted our simple takeaway, making “Hey Ya” as much a scathing criticism of pop music as one of its finest examples.

33. The Rapture – “House of Jealous Lovers” (2002)
from the album Echoes

Key lyrics:

Though better known as the front man of LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy started as a DJ and record producer. “House of Jealous Lovers” was the first release from his company, a dance-punk track with more explosive energy than anything Murphy would make once his own band took off. Lead singer Luke Jenner gives one of the most absurd performances in rock history without any hint of shame. His harsh vocals are at first grating, but they also speak to a compellingly raw element in punk. The lyrics are as repetitive and simple as they come, existing more for Jenner’s violent shout than to convey meaning.

Once you get past the vocals (…if you can), “House of Jealous Lovers” hits with unbelievable energy. This is a track that makes perfect use of every single instrument. The song kicks off with a killer bassline and then adds a bit of cowbell – the track grooves out to this simple arrangement for forty-five seconds only for the bass to drop out and leave the percussion on its own. Then the guitar comes in. Though dance-punk might typically be defined more by grooves than a riff, this is the glorious exception. That guitar is the stuff of legends, an all-timer if it ever captures a wider audience.

Once dance-punk became defined as an intentional genre, it disappeared almost as quickly. Even if LCD Soundsystem grew to be the bigger name, “House of Jealous Lovers” feels like the real beating heart of the movement. This is a peak of both rock and dance that conforms to the expectations of neither. It’s lightning in a bottle, a song that so perfectly defined the aspirations of its subgenre that few others have been able to expand upon its promise.

32. Beck – “Loser” (1993)
from the album Mellow Gold

Key lyrics:
“Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’t you kill me?”

It takes a certain skill to speak nonsense with absolute conviction. On his breakthrough, Beck certainly seems to be saying something, so convincing in his performance that one might blithely accept there must be some deeper meaning. The truth is that each line features such a strong cadence that we trick ourselves into thinking there must be a stronger connective tissue. Beck speaks in riddles, and each line could very well lead into the next – the trick is that each line acts like a word association game. There may be a semblance of an idea between each line, but it rarely stretches beyond that pair.

What is clear is that the chorus struck a perfect note for the alternative rock movement. What better defines Generation X than that nonchalant, defeatist slogan? Though it is clearly an endpoint for his nonsense flow, it is a testament to how evocative Beck’s delivery can be. Despite having no idea what the verses mean, they’re so catchy I can largely recite them from memory. Who needs meaning when a phrase sounds cool?

This all works because Beck is such a master experimenter. The dominating slide guitar offers an unusual hook, and the verses feature a trippy sitar element. The bridge makes use of back-masking. The overall sound draws upon the folk-rap that Bob Dylan suggested possible with “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” We lump it into the alternative rock movement more by association than by sound – Beck has always been playing his own game. “Loser” set the scene for a beautifully odd career.

31. Love – “Alone Again Or” (1967)
from the album Forever Changes

Key lyrics:
“’You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are the greatest fun’
And I will be alone again tonight my dear”

“Alone Again Or” denies easy classification, psychedelic folk rock playing with a Spanish guitar sound before going full Mariachi with strings and horns. Each verse is punctuated by an extended acoustic solo. This is a constantly shifting soundscape, but whether it is at its sparsest or most elaborate sequence, it is connected by anxious paranoia. The chorus is a mocking take on the free love movement, an aching cry of loneliness from someone wanting commitment. Love drenched this song in emotional vulnerability.

What makes this so compelling is its central cycle. The three verses are short, closing out with the same line each time. Though the second verse ends in a quiet guitar solo like the first, it expands into a horn-led instrumental break. Additionally, the quiet guitar solo acts as a reset after the first two verses, a way of quieting things down to slowly build back up to the peak of that defining line. The way it trails off at the end instead suggests defeat. Though “Alone Again Or” essentially consists of three slight variations, it journeys through disappointment, passion, and despair.

“Alone Again Or” achieves a timeless element through its mixture of familiar yet disparate sounds. The Spanish influence shines through, setting a specific scene even as the lyrics keep it vague. Though the horn arrangement draws distinctly from Mariachi music, they play it with tension rarely captured in the popular sphere. Love might not be anywhere near the biggest acts of their own era, but “Alone Again Or” perfectly captures the spirit of innovation that dominated the late-60s.

30. Nina Simone – “Sinnerman” (1965)
from the album Pastel Blues

Key lyrics:
“Lord, Lord, hear me praying”

“Sinnerman” is spiritual jazz by way of Revelations. Nina Simone plays the most haunted woman in music, running all over the place in hope of salvation after a life of sin. The desperation in her voice is matched by the frantic backing band – even as the song stretches over ten minutes, it never loses the sense that all of time is running out. The piano and cymbal patter alone make this a convincing panic attack, but then Simone brings in a backing choir to echo her words in a visceral cry.

After an instrumental break, the instruments subtly fade out until nothing but clapping remains. This interlude helps reset the tone – making an extended track truly work is a difficult task, but Simone and her band expertly establish “Sinnerman” as having distinct movements, even as the back half returns to a familiar sound. But even as she retreads that ground, the repeating shouts of ‘power’ come off more celebratory than desperate.

And, boy, does Nina Simone know how to end a song. With nearly two minutes to go, the instruments stumble to a sudden stop as Simone begins scatting. As her wordless cries take shape into pleas for God’s forgiveness, only her frantic piano dares to assist. Nina Simone is a true vocal powerhouse, and her voice alone is enough to match the orchestrated tension that built up over the last eight minutes. This is a musical breakdown of enormous magnitude, one that demands an extended journey to justify the mood. Vocal jazz is not typically associated with expansive epics or urgency, but “Sinnerman” proves the infinite possibilities of music in expert hands.

29. The Jam – “Going Underground” (1980)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“And the public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society’s got”

New Wave evolved out of the punk movement, but few New Wave hits captured the political unease that drove much of the British punk scene. “Going Underground” is a prime exception, a song written with surprising articulation about the contemporary social climate. Instead of continuing the anger of that earlier movement, The Jam largely choose to celebrate those who stand against the mainstream. Despite topping the charts in its homeland, “Going Underground” is among the finest homages to the indie scene while still getting in some excellent jabs at British society.

The Jam play this song with exceptional force. Yet unlike the frenetic energy of a Ramones song, they somehow manage to come off as relaxed. “Going Underground” is a particularly hard song to classify, very much a rock song but calling upon some very specific movements while similarly subverting the major expectations. This is punk at ease, New Wave without experimentation, mod with emphasis on groove as much as the melody. The result is a track with mass appeal that sheds generic descriptors, as traditionally rock as it is a singular creation.

At this heightened pace, Paul Weller barrels through his lyrics, but he sings with enough clarity that every line is crisply delivered. He emphasizes the simple life while lamenting British warmongering. A key line change really says it all – ‘the public gets what the public wants’ transforms into ‘the public wants what the public gets.’ Why aim for mass appeal when the mass media has its own agenda? The fact this hit number one in Britain does not defeat its message – The Jam were speaking a truth that resonated in a style anyone could enjoy.

28. Primal Scream – “Loaded” (1990)
from the album Screamadelica

Primal Scream made dance music like no others. While not as outright trippy as “Higher Than the Sun,” “Loaded” might be the more pointedly risky. This is a seven minute epic that simply grooves out for its duration, a song that asks its listeners to chill and take it easy. Though there are vocal samples, it’s all just a blur of music. Screamadelica is one of the most explicit odes to drugs and alcohol ever recorded. Where “Higher Than the Sun” finds Bobby Gillespie expressing a sense of higher thought through lyrics, “Loaded” makes its purpose known purely through an opening sample and its own groove. This is a track designed for the height of a drunken stupor, a victorious fanfare for those too loaded to think.

What makes “Loaded” so interesting is how unique it sounds while being so obviously constructed from familiar parts. On their rock-oriented tracks, Primal Scream do their best Rolling Stones impression, and the central groove on “Loaded” may as well be a tripped out take on “Sympathy for the Devil.” The R&B vocal sample clearly exists to evoke a gospel edge, matching the pseudo-religious quality of the rest of the album. While the inspirations are easy to name, “Loaded” exists in its own sphere.

The personal question I must ask is why this drug-fueled celebration resonates with my rather straight edge personality. The power in psychedelic music is not necessarily how much it truly pairs with drugs, but how much it evokes that atmosphere. “Loaded” paints a vibrant image of a party even as I sit alone listening on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning.

27. The Stone Roses – “Fools Gold” (1989)
non-album single, featured on certain printings of The Stone Roses

Key lyrics:
“These boots were made for walking
The Marquis de Sade don’t wear no boots like these”

Rock and roll has rarely been as dance-oriented as The Stone Roses on “Fools Gold.” This is a ten minute groove piece, a song inviting you to get lost in its hypnotic rhythm. The instrumentation is surprisingly understated, the bass and drums placed firmly in the foreground. To keep attention focused squarely on the dance elements, Ian Brown gives a strikingly lethargic performance. His laidback attitude lends an easy feel to a song that otherwise carries surprising force – yet his words also strike tension.

The bass is pure funk excellence, something that would stand on its own but perfectly ties together the chaotic soundscape that “Fools Gold” grows into. The song could have easily ended after Brown delivers his last line, but continuing with another five minute instrumental section really drives it home. During this section, a heavily distorted guitar occasionally rockets forward, adding new life to the now-familiar rhythm. Even after finding their groove, The Stone Roses keep bursting forward with more energy. Bass and drums can rarely sustain a song alone, but “Fools Gold” expertly reinvents the other elements.

This is a song I can simply get lost in, commanding a sonic space beyond its dance-rock leaning. There is a sense of ambience as it occasionally settles into its groove, only to repeatedly deny that easy listening. It demands attention while never being too aggressive. “Fools Gold” is such an obvious inspiration for British music in the decade that followed, yet its extended take puts it in another category entirely.

26. Sam Cooke – “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964)
from the album Ain’t That Good News

Key lyrics:
“It’s been too hard livin’
But I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky”

“A Change Is Gonna Come” is an eternal classic of the Civil Rights Movement, a song as devastating as it is inspirational. Even as Sam Cooke details his experiences with racism, he insists that change is possible. Instead of matching pop sensibilities of the time like most of Cooke’s other hits, the song was produced with a symphonic quality. Built more as a mission statement, its enduring success proves the intelligence of that choice – this is a work of sweeping beauty that captures the spirit of America in its time. Though Cooke was writing from an African American perspective, his chorus works as a universal battle cry for the disenfranchised of all varieties. Nearly sixty years on, its message hits just as hard.

Playing against strings and horns as the leading instruments can be a challenge, but there is such depth and warmth in Cooke’s voice that he earns the heightened presentation. This is a sound one typically associates with extravagant show-stopping numbers, but Cooke keeps everything grounded through his stark lyricism. The strings swell behind him as he reaches the apex of the later verses, emphasizing his powerful delivery. This is peak soul singing, spiritual power with the instrumentation to match.

“A Change is Gonna Come” hit a lot of perfect notes to land among the quintessential Civil Rights songs, but most important is its realistic approach. The mixing of strife and hope is key; strife without hope is devastating, while hope without strife is a bit too optimistic. “A Change is Gonna Come” strikes a perfect balance while featuring such grand sonic power as to immediately capture attention.

My Top 250 Songs Part 8 (#75-51)

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

Key lyrics:
“Walking back to you
Is the hardest thing that
I can do”

The noise pop sound of The Jesus and Mary Chain borders on paradox. As the band sifts through heavy guitar feedback, they somehow capture an understated calm. Part of this is in the droll vocal stylings of Jim Reid, singing half-energetically as if a chaotic force isn’t brewing behind him. Another part is the “Be My Baby” drums that open the song, casting a steady beat that overpower the noise in its own way. This is another engineering success story, the mix putting these elements at the same level and letting them interact in seemingly contradictory ways.

While writing about The Cure, I mentioned that their dark edge gives a heightened sense of sincerity to their fluffier pieces. “Just Like Honey” works on a similar level, but The Jesus and Mary Chain captures sonic unease with loving sentimentality in the same breath. The feedback operates like butterflies in the stomach, a flittering sickly feeling. It’s a love song, sure, but one in which the narrator knows his love is not good for him as he desperately clings anyway.

If anything, “Just Like Honey” cites “Be My Baby” to declare itself the logical conclusion of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The Jesus and Mary Chain are asking whether a cascade of instruments is necessary, or could simple guitar feedback simulate the constant presence? The answer appears to be yes – no matter how noisy, the feedback takes a backseat to the typical song structure. “Just Like Honey” is an ordinary pop song grimed up for the 80s alternative scene.

74. David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto – “Forbidden Colours” (1983)
from the album Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence OST

Key lyrics:
“I’ll go walking in circles while doubting the very ground beneath me”

“Forbidden Colours” is an exemplary film track, a bombastic scene-stealer that should be on the same cultural level as “My Heart Will Go On” or “I Will Always Love You.” Alas, the film to which it is attached was destined to obscurity, so it never received its moment in the spotlight. The song is the vocal version of the main theme, which itself has become a minor Christmas classic. Sakamoto’s ambient soundscape suggests an introspective wintry mood, like walking through the snow-blanketed woods. It captures the best qualities of modern Japanese film scores – Joe Hisaishi, the composer for most of Miyazaki’s films, had been inspired by Sakomoto’s earlier band, and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” could just as easily have appeared in one of those majestic films.

Like Julee Cruise’s “Falling,” David Sylvian’s “Forbidden Colours” recontextualizes a gentle theme into a love song. In this case, the song oozes with tension. Taking its title from a Yukio Mishima novel, Sylvian evokes homoromantic desires without so much as mentioning his love’s gender. One can read shame in the lyrics, considering Sylvian’s insistent use of ‘my love’ to refer to this other person. There is a crisis of faith, which Sylvian matches with crushing passion. Few songs so perfectly capture the tragedy of falling for someone you are not allowed – though less taboo in this era, Sylvian’s powerful vocals echo so much unspoken historical grief. The result is something ageless. Though the instrumental version is meditative alone, it transforms into something altogether haunting and otherwordly when paired with Sylvian.

73. Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way” (1976)
from the album Rumours

Key lyrics:
“If I could, maybe I’d give you my world
How can I when you won’t take it from me?”

Rumours hits harder than pretty much every other breakup album because it captures both sides. “Go Your Own Way” finds Lindsey Buckingham casually lashing out, all while ex-lover Stevie Nicks is forced to sing along. Though the verses cut through Nicks specifically, the chorus is a classic burst of catharsis for everyone involved. Despite breakups causing a flurry of emotions, many songs reduce this to sadness or anger. “Go Your Own Way” instead captures the flippant glee of telling an ex to sod off, but not with so much force as to suggest they saw nothing of value in their relationship. Rather, this is the lonely cry of someone who felt like they weren’t getting what they deserved, grinning through their pain just to show they can move on.

Part of the appeal is that Fleetwood Mac were doing this soft rock sound right as punk was taking off. But in spite of their lighter music, Fleetwood Mac suggested something just as raw in their emotions as those young men did with their simple instrumentation. If the punk movement was largely a rejection of artifice, Fleetwood Mac made an unlikely companion to the era.

“Go Your Own Way” is also a structural masterpiece. The heavy acoustic strumming of the verses plays perfectly against the cohesive gliding of the chorus. In lieu of additional verses, the last two choruses are divided by two guitar solos. Despite the emotional complexity, Fleetwood Mac do not fall back on lyrics; there really aren’t many lines on this track. Instead, they let the instruments do the talking. And though these solos might not have the sonic intensity of a hard rocker, they express heavy emotions.

72. Elton John – “Your Song” (1970)
from the album Elton John

Key lyrics:
“I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind
That I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world”

Though Elton John has had a long and illustrious career, nothing hits quite like his breakthrough single. “Your Song” is about as perfect as a traditional love song can be. The lyrics are sincerely effective, any sense of sentimentality cut down by Elton’s delivery of humbling lines. As he begins a metaphor about a sculptor, he laughs and stops himself. There is a sense of self-awareness about this song, which adds to the sincerity as Elton belts out the heartfelt chorus. This is a song that has brought me tears of joy, and even when I find myself between relationships, it remains a striking reminder of the power of love. No declaration of love hits me as hard as those key lines above. The fact this was written by a teenager and performed by a closeted man only reinforces the sense Taupin and Elton tapped into a universal idea.

The arrangement allows Elton’s vocals to remain front and center. During the opening, the piano takes up most of the soundscape, with the gentle strum of a guitar adding light punctuation. This is a song that swells as Elton gets caught up in his emotions. The second verse adds percussion, giving a rising sense of motion. “Your Song” is an exercise in how to subtly expand a quiet ballad into a showstopper. Though Elton is practically shouting by the end, there is no sense of detachment from that quiet opening. The lyrics are phenomenal, but the steadily rising emotional delivery makes “Your Song” a true masterpiece.

71. John Cale – “Paris 1919” (1973)
from the album Paris 1919

Key lyrics:
“She makes me so unsure of myself”

Though consistently overshadowed by Lou Reed in the popular sphere, John Cale’s solo career deserves just as much attention. “Paris 1919” lacks the aggression of Cale’s work with The Velvet Underground, but his sense of exploration remains. The Beach Boys and The Beatles had already made great strides in establishing baroque pop, but John Cale dived deeper into the baroque side of the equation. Where songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “God Only Knows” sounded like modern pop with classical instruments, “Paris 1919” sounds like a bona fide period piece. It is a song that feels particularly difficult to place, too elaborate for the time of its setting but showing no signs of the 1970s either. Like Nick Drake’s “River Man” or Vashti Bunyan’s “Diamond Day,” “Paris 1919” is a portal to an alternate realm where popular music took a distinct turn somewhere far in the past.

Picking apart any individual element is difficult. No instrument comes off as particularly complex in its arrangement, but the simple volume of instruments is the striking point. Just as the song seems to be settling into a familiar groove, it trails off into a brief ambient atmosphere. Despite the difficult lyrics, the whole piece comes off as a celebratory parade. Cale keeps a sing-song cadence, descending into a string of ‘la la las’ during the chorus. Though the total soundscape is something massive, Cale’s vocals turn this into an accessible and catchy tune. “Paris 1919” is pure atmosphere, showcasing a magical ability for music to transport us to another time and place.

70. Phoebe Bridgers – “Kyoto” (2020)
from the album Punisher

Key lyrics:
“I wanted to see the world
Then I flew over the ocean
And I changed my mind”

There are few things in life more underwhelming than achieving a lifelong dream and realizing little has changed. With Bridgers’ depressive lyrics, the horn-heavy “Kyoto” feels like an inverse of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” Both songs take the idea of visiting a distant city as an act of self-discovery, but where Sufjan found freedom, Phoebe Bridgers gets caught up in the anxiety of her home life. It is a simple yet blunt realization – our inner demons cannot be escaped through physical movement.

After the first verse, the song shifts gears almost exclusively to her abusive father. She finds herself in a contradictory bubble, hating him but also fearing for him. Her specific imagery paints a stark picture of a man who halfheartedly tries to connect, and Bridgers sounds frustrated with herself for returning that same energy. “Kyoto” so perfectly captures the pressure to try and relate to family members, no matter what they have done. Changes in phrasing between the two choruses are so vital, linking the two central thoughts together.

With all these depressing ideas, the fact “Kyoto” comes off as such an uplifting song is a testament to its vibrant soundscape. The instrumentation grows increasingly dense and energetic as it progresses; while Kyoto did not provide the easy answers Bridgers desires, she has at least learned something. “Kyoto” in many ways feels like a rejection of her signature brooding. Instead of stewing in her disappointment, she has grown from it. She may end the song by repeatedly calling herself a liar, but the self-awareness of that statement shows room for change that no visit to a city can provide.

69. Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (2005)
from the album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Key lyrics:
“Stop making the eyes at me
I’ll stop making the eyes at you
What it is that surprises me
Is that I don’t really want you to”

Arctic Monkeys may have arrived at the tail-end of the garage rock revival era, but they kicked off their career with one of the most iconic songs of the movement. “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is about as frantic as rock comes, thrash-worthy despite never sounding anything close to metal. The lyrics suggest little more than lusting after cheap sex but add to the sickly barroom feel the band thrives on. Further, the numerous references help play up the bawdy delivery, a sonic encapsulation of young men trying to work their way into bed by being a tiny bit clever.

“I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is really as straightforward as that. Few bands, whether punk or otherwise, have truly tapped upon the fast but simple ideology Ramones established quite like Arctic Monkeys on their debut hit. This is one of those rare modern rock songs that preys upon some primal appeal. The clanging guitar and Alex Turner’s harsh delivery lend this the skeeviest atmosphere, one of those songs that so perfectly simulates a mood that you somehow embrace the negative associations. It calls up memories of young men visiting clubs for the first time, as confident as they are completely out of their element.

Despite never being one of those young straight men, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” speaks to me. The rawness of Arctic Monkeys’ performance captures a universally recognizable passion. One can only hope to feel this intense about anything.

68. Primal Scream – “Higher Than the Sun” (1991)
from the album Screamadelica

Key lyrics:
“Hallucinogens can open me or untie me”

Most bands try to be clever while talking about drug use, leading to a world where any song that might be about drugs is assumed as such. “Higher Than the Sun” cuts straight to the point, directly referencing hallucinogens before Bobby Gillespie rambles about spiritual enlightenment. This track takes itself so seriously that it could have been laughable, but Primal Scream bring the sonic elements to back up its grandiose claims. Even today, there are few songs that sound anything like this. “Higher Than the Sun” blends together psychedelia, ambient, and downtempo electronic to make something distinct among its many parts. It opens with a series of slow explosions and expands into a collage of stray sounds, chanted woos sounding like tripped out owls which cast the whole experience as a trek through a neon forest.

The effect this song has had on me is hard to describe. I have never done drugs nor do I care to try, but the pure sonic ambience of this track pulls me in like nothing else. Though I don’t have synesthesia, this song manages to bring to mind a specific and hallucinatory array of colors. I can count the number of songs that have consistently had this effect on one hand, so “Higher Than the Sun” belongs to an elite group. As such, this is one of those cases where I have no idea whether this song speaks to anyone else in the way it does me. Whatever the case, the mesmerizing soundscape on display here is essential.

67. The War on Drugs – “Red Eyes” (2013)
from the album Lost in the Dream

Key lyrics:
“I would keep you here, but I can’t”

The War on Drugs are obvious about their influences, “Red Eyes” being the best heartland rock song this side of Bruce Springsteen. But to command a familiar sound decades after it is established requires a finer touch. Though this captures the propulsive energy of an escape song, The War on Drugs balances a soft ambience atop their traditional rock arrangement. Those opening notes suggest something colossal, setting a tension for the building wall of sound to capitalize upon. Few songs expand so convincingly.

The song opens with a sustained synth, followed by a simple pairing of drums and guitar. The opening suggests a mellow piece, with several moments where the guitar pulls back, leaving just the quiet synth and a heavy beat. But then Adam Granduciel leads into the chorus with an explosive shout, the hardest hitting exclamation in music since the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The lead guitar picks up a heavy riff while a handful of instruments add to the wall. Granduciel’s vocals become so layered they border on incomprehensible. Right as everything takes off, “Red Eyes” takes an extended bridge, again reducing itself largely to the beat and muted ambience. The various instruments are slow to ramp up again, but the effect is like kicking the dust up while barreling down a country road.

“Red Eyes” is not a song I liked at first. It is a slow build without so much a payoff as a steady flow. But the more I listened, the more I fell into its unique rhythm. Though easiest to compare to Springsteen, the true success here is its subtle touch of dream pop. Granduciel’s “woo” is the finest of wake up calls, effortlessly bridging two wildly different genres.

66. Mitski – “Nobody” (2018)
from the album Be the Cowboy

Key lyrics:
“Give me one good movie kiss
And I’ll be alright”

Some songs just come out at the perfect time in your life. Be the Cowboy dropped right before I asked for my divorce, and “Nobody” took on the role of an immediate comfort jam. Worse yet is the more universal role it has taken on amid the COVID-19 pandemic – the opening lines referencing being so lonely as to open a window in the hopes of hearing passing strangers feels all too relevant. Like “B.O.B.” during the early 2000s, “Nobody” feels disarmingly prescient.

Even without that strange coincidence, “Nobody” first clicked because it so expertly captures the feeling of loneliness. In the first half, Mitski asks for an ‘honest’ kiss; this turns into a ‘movie’ kiss by the second. Even a simulation is better than the nothing she has. The chorus is legendary in its simplicity, taking on one word but delivering it in so many different ways. By the end, each syllable of ‘nobody’ is dragged out until it no longer feels whole. This is a cry of absolute despair.

Naturally, such a dire theme is paired with much happier music. The song opens with a skittering drum pattern, immediately casting this as an indie disco jam. Mitski plays this up throughout the first half, all the sonic dissonance of a New Wave track. There’s even a double-clap during the second verse to really drill it in. But then we get to the extended chorus, where Mitski repeats ‘nobody’ for an entire minute. The music just keeps rising, the disco beat morphing into an aggressive anxiety attack – “Nobody” is no longer playing at New Wave irony, suggesting Mitski can no longer force the façade. This is an expertly aching song, dangerously catchy enough that I keep returning despite all the pain.

65. New Order – “Temptation” (1982)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“And I’ve never seen anyone quite like you before
No, I’ve never met anyone quite like you before”

After several years spent in the shadows of Joy Division, “Temptation” marked New Order truly coming into their own sound. There is a little hint of melancholy during the verses, but everything else explodes into a fit of exuberance as the narrator falls head over heels after meeting several women. This is a man caught in a constant cycle, but the sonic energy focuses almost exclusively on the bubbling sense of love at first sight. This is bubblegum New Wave at its most sweetly sincere.

Though firmly a New Order track, this catches the band before their sound became densely layered. The stark division between instrumental sounds helps this stand out as one of their catchiest tracks. Every drum beat hits with uncanny synthetic force. The synth line is frantic and giddy. Bernard Sumner is at his best here, in his element as he jumps between the nervous verses and bursts of pure ecstasy. Though I have knocked his range plenty of times, few moments hit me like his delivery of the ‘oh you’ve got green eyes’ section. His everyman presentation works wonders for such a universal experience.

As a whole, “Temptation” is pure dancefloor bliss. One of the fun things about this project has been the unlikely comparisons it has brought to mind – but this and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” are excellent examples of how to take the same theme and completely change the mood. “Temptation” is young love with blinders on, a bright burst of joy that we can pretend never has to end.

64. Roy Orbison – “Crying” (1961)
from the album Crying

Key lyrics:
“I love you even more
Than I did before
But, darling, what can I do?”

Though Roy Orbison’s “Crying” obviously has backing instrumentation, the greatness of this song rests almost entirely within Orbison’s voice. This is one of those powerhouse performances showcasing such a strong range that it becomes era-defining. For the first half, Orbison sings in his ordinary style, which is familiar but still impressive. But by the second half, he is absolutely wailing at times, shifting between highs and lows at will. His voice warbles through so many words, a perfect simulation of the crying he is describing. “Crying” is a perfect example of the human voice as an emotive instrument.

While it is easy to heap praise upon artists who use lyrics to tell complex stories or throw out a dozen clever phrases, there is also something noteworthy about keeping things so simple that the vocalist is left to evoke the true meaning. Like Mitski’s “Nobody” or Pixies’ “Hey,” so much of this song’s strength is in the creative repetition of a single word. ‘Crying’ may have two syllables, but rarely is that enough for Orbison. Though his first uses of the word are standard, if occasionally drawn out for emphasis, the next section finds him shooting up and down his range with each extra use. After a certain point, the word itself disappears inside his almost onomatopoeia-like delivery. By the climax, he just keeps pushing to another level.

Breakup songs typically need something extra for me to care – an underexplored emotion, some unique instrumentation that serves as the actual backbone of the song. Part of this is because these themes are so common that they can immediately read as generic. The other part is that “Crying” expresses the act of despairing over a breakup so perfectly that anyone covering the same ground has stiff competition.

63. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power” (1989)
from the albums Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Fear of a Black Planet

Key lyrics:
“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”

Public Enemy represent a significant turning point in the hip hop scene. Though their musical stylings share a similar sound to the hardcore scene that was being taken over by gangster rap, their lyrics took on a wider view of society. Instead of focusing on local matters or personal conflict, Public Enemy tackle the systemic issues that have kept black people down. Though far from the first politically-minded hip hop group, it is Public Enemy’s specific combination of these themes and hardcore production that has served as a blueprint for so many acts that followed. Their sound is bare rage.

“Fight the Power” has an additional complexity brought on by its origins as a movie theme song. In this specific case, the song had to be designed for a character to be constantly blaring it on a boom box. The song is built upon an insistent sample, an aggressive noise that marks the entire song as a unified whole. It has an anthemic quality, telling the listener they can and should change things.

But even as an ordinary Public Enemy song, this finds the interplay between Chuck D and Flavor Flav at its height. Just take the opening line, where Flavor Flav starts things off by saying the year, only for Chuck D to join him after the first two syllables and then continue alone through the rest of the line. Though Flavor Flav is frequently used as pure exclamation on a lot of their tracks, the frequent bursts where he reinforces Chuck D on “Fight the Power” give an unbelievable energy. With an unforgettable sample, explosive delivery, and some killer lyrics, “Fight the Power” hits just as hard thirty years on.

62. Chris Isaak – “Wicked Game” (1989)
from the album Heart Shaped World

Key lyrics:
“Nobody loves no one”

Roy Orbison could be considered one of the most singular voices in popular music, if not for the fact that Chris Isaak does such a perfect imitation. “Wicked Game” plays like a classic Orbison track being given the sensuous freedom of a later era, layered with a disarmingly dark mood provided by a distinct sliding note on the lead guitar. This is passion at its most extreme, a man caught up in a love he cannot handle.

What makes “Wicked Game” as compelling as the best Orbison tracks is how it plays against a distinctly modern sound. Orbison’s style of crooning seems emblematic of a particular era of pop music, where instrumentation took a backseat to vocals. Isaak instead plays himself against a guitar that could easily steal the spotlight. His insistently drawn out notes force a certain restraint on the guitar – the song has to be structured around sustaining sounds as Isaak belts it out. The result is something like a mellow surf rock, a twanging sound that can play to its own rhythm while Isaak emphasizes every word.

The result is a heartbroken love song too cool to be cheesy. The guitar oozes with enough force that the fact this song is commonly considered ‘soft rock’ can be easy to forget. In fact, “Wicked Game” seems to exist at the intersection of half a dozen styles, but Chris Isaak makes such a perfect fusion that it all goes down easy. By bridging a gap between distinct eras, “Wicked Game” created its own timelessness.

61. FKA twigs – “Two Weeks” (2014)
from the album LP1

Key lyrics:
“Pull out the incisor, give me two weeks, you won’t recognize her”

Crude sex songs have been a staple of popular music for several decades now. “Two Weeks” is about as vulgar as they come, yet FKA twigs elevates her sound to a state of pure elegance. Where she commonly casts herself in a vulnerable light, “Two Weeks” finds her instead playing a sex goddess. In fact, she plays it up so well her confidence suggests a sad delusion – there is a painful desperation here beneath all the direct demands. “Two Weeks” rides on that contradiction, a woman showcasing her sexuality while the subject of her affection is himself in a vulnerable state – can what she has truly be called power?

“Two Weeks” is all about sustained sounds. A droning synth-line sets the scene which crescendos during the chorus. FKA twigs emphasizes every syllable. A rolling snare drum adds a bit more force but settles into its own pattern. These sounds are always moving toward a boiling point, whether it be during the chorus or the pulsating bridge. FKA twigs rolls away from that boiling point with ease, keeping us in a constant cycle of build-up that never quite relieves our tension – a great effect for what could pass as a siren song.

Even on a straightforward level, “Two Weeks” excels as a burst of female empowerment. FKA twigs has flipped the roles of a song form largely dominated by men and does it with feminine grace. It’s not that she plays coy – not with those lyrics – but that she manages to be sexy while simultaneously demanding respect. In essence, FKA twigs has taken the central innuendo of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” but placed herself on the pedestal.

60. Joy Division – “Transmission” (1979)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio”

On a surface level, Joy Division’s breakthrough single sounds like their most positive song. A propulsive rhythm makes it a genuine post-punk dance track, and the chorus encourages that movement. Yet as Ian Curtis repeats that line, almost demanding that we dance, there is an anxious tension in his delivery. The lyrics are not a self-referential acknowledgement of the song’s own enchanting sound, but rather a mad swipe at our cultural tendency to use art as escapism. To dance to the radio is to conform.

It is easy to look past Curtis’s dire lyrics and just enjoy the song for itself – which perhaps reinforces his point. That opening bassline provides the perfect thunder for the other instruments to crash in with a frenetic energy. Curtis’s cold vocals provide a contrast point, the music sounding so lively around him. His frantic delivery during the third verse only adds to the sense of motion.

Of course, his complaints about music being used as a distraction do not contradict the primal strengths of this song. Rather, it can be taken to mean that we should have more considerations for the art we consume, and also that this art should be made with that higher thought in mind. “Transmission” does not necessarily include itself in its critique – as a breakthrough song, Joy Division could not have gone into its creation expecting a radio hit. The true genius of Joy Division is how they managed to balance such heavy subject matter with an accessible sound – the type of music that should be played on the radio.

59. Radiohead – “Paranoid Android” (1997)
from the album OK Computer

Key lyrics:
“When I am king
You will be first against the wall”

Though not the most famous Radiohead track, “Paranoid Android” is easily the most definitive – this is a song that explores nearly every inch of the band’s sound. Like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” before it, “Paranoid Android” transitions between several distinct segments, all capturing a significant mood. While starting with the same spacey sound that defines much of OK Computer, it soon dives into a hard guitar rocker. The song then hits the brakes, Thom Yorke singing with several layers far above a downtempo beat.

The key to “Paranoid Android” is it lets these sequences play out for extended periods, and all three are just as engaging separately as they are together. The opening does more to establish an atmosphere than to play to traditional rock elements, though the riffs are nevertheless iconic. This is the segment that showcases Radiohead as the great experimenters of the 90s. While the middle sequence is more traditional, it is a perfect tension builder. The guitar part is unfathomably cool, first acting to support Thom Yorke’s aggressive rambling before shooting even higher on its own. The transition into the next sequence is so vital, as if the guitar is pushing so hard that it gives out entirely.

Rock rhapsodies can live and die by their quietest segment; nothing is worse than getting into a groove and being spit out onto something that loses all energy. “Paranoid Android” is so successful because its slow finale takes on the atmosphere of a sweeping epic. Though sonically similar to some of their lighter songs, this sequence benefits by carrying over the earlier tension, resulting in an experience like sitting before a mad god. Tying everything together, the guitar rockets back in. Exemplifying the juxtaposition, the same sound that provided tension after the second section transforms into a cathartic release after the third.

58. Pixies – “Hey” (1989)
from the album Doolittle

Key lyrics:
“We’re chained”

While Pixies covered a lot of stylistic ground, their signature sound typically involved mixing quiet and loud sequences. “Hey” is thus one of those odd tracks that is unusual in its ordinary structure. But this is not a case of a band momentarily shedding their own sound to try something new – what “Hey” lacks in aggression is made up by Black Francis’s bizarre delivery. This is a love song through a corrupted lens.

Instrumentally, “Hey” is a smooth, low tempo track dominated by a groovy bassline. Much of the sound is sparse, the drums not coming in until the first verse closes. The guitar begins to wail partway through the chorus, a domineering sound that does more to amp up the tension than the volume. The following section uses quiet space perfectly, the signature bassline left with nothing but a soft cymbal patter. The understated guitar solo that follows sets up Black Francis to delve into a poignant bout of Pixies oddity. He grunts his way through several sexual encounters, connecting that grunt to a mother giving birth. It paints a desperately depressing picture of a loveless yet functioning relationship.

Most striking is the chorus, the way it uses a single phrase and lets it simmer to a boiling point. At first, Black Francis sings alone, stressing the syllables of ‘chained’ several different ways. Kim Deal begins to echo that word, but in a simple monotone. Combined with the wailing guitar, these two words start to ooze with emotion. Pixies’ off-kilter delivery helps sell the grimy nature of love in stagnation.

57. Daft Punk – “Da Funk” (1995)
from the album Homework

Daft Punk have no need for words. Even without a human voice, “Da Funk” is as expressive as popular music gets. With this early single, the duo shot from the gate, showcasing their ability to mix and match a small handful of sounds to generate an endlessly changing soundscape. The woozy synthesizers and distant beats create an atmosphere both sinister and mysterious.

Though these electronic sounds are distinctly mechanical, the synth-line that opens the song bubbles about with a sense of curiosity. To me, this synth-line is the “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or “You Really Got Me” riff equivalent of the electronic scene. It’s so singularly evocative that little else can compare. Finding that magical sound, Daft Punk simply needed to build a song around it. They went beyond that, creating a beat with so much empty space that the silence between becomes its own force anytime the drum machine plays alone. That lead synth-line is designed to slither about, subtly snaking back into the mix at several points. A more rapid-fire synth-line develops over the course of the song, adding tension to an already anxious song. The final mix of everything together is as overwhelming as it is articulate – the production is so crisp that nothing is lost in the chaos.

With all these powerful elements, “Da Funk” is a dance track without a single dominating groove, only linked together by an ever-present bass note. Daft Punk’s brand of house music is so effective because they immediately deconstruct themselves. Some songs are better than the sum of their parts. “Da Funk” eschews that notion entirely – Daft Punk’s calculations involve as much subtraction as addition.

56. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy” (1994)
from the album Ready to Die

Key lyrics:
“Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood
And it’s still all good”

On this five minute track, The Notorious B.I.G. covers a whole lot of ground. Born in 1972, he was at just the right age to see the birth and early evolution of hip hop. As he reflects on his upbringing, the history of hip hop is naturally intertwined. Few songs have ever been such a convincing love letter to their own influences.

Yet the more personal aspects keep me coming back. Contrasting the gangster rap scene, “Juicy” is a celebratory burst of self-affirmation. This is the story of a man who appears in genuine awe of his own success. There is no sense of braggadocio to this story. Rather, Biggie Smalls lets those who hurt him off the hook while simply enjoying the ease of his new life. As he covers the troubles of his youth, it is clear he intends this as an inspirational piece, to encourage others like him to strive to succeed. Even as he delves into his extravagant life, he always ties it back to the elements he escaped.

This song hits especially hard considering Biggie’s brief life. To think I have already outlived him by four years sometimes leaves me overwhelmed. With Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain, I can recognize the internal struggles reflected in their music; their deaths, though tragic, at least fit some awful narrative. To hear “Juicy” and recognize it as a young man celebrating a life he once viewed as impossible makes his death all the more difficult to accept. But this tragedy makes “Juicy” a poignant reminder to celebrate what we have in the moment.

55. Sharon Van Etten – “Seventeen” (2019)
from the album Remind Me Tomorrow

Key lyrics:
“I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown”

Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen” is a masterful slow build. The song opens with a hint of her typical indie folk rock sound, leaning a bit harder into the rock but still familiar ground. A faint synth-line whirs in the background, mixed just low enough to barely register and be overtaken by the drums. Her words are a bittersweet nostalgia trip, reflecting on the common mix of youthful self-idealization and loneliness. She speaks of the past as a time of freedom, but the lines she fills in between suggest a higher tension.

The guitar rips to life halfway through, a gnarly rebirth of the anxiety-laced synth-line that had subtly faded and now returned. After a brief interlude, Van Etten matches the growing instrumental tension, shouting her way through the next several lines. This sequence is a victory cry – though she was at first idealizing her past self, she recognizes that she has grown into a better woman. The drums pick up on her energy, creating a Springsteen-style cathartic burst. As the song approaches its end, the synth-line encroaches and takes over all else; though consisting of familiar elements, the chaotic electronics over a heartland rocker forms something inexplicably empowering.

The range of emotions Van Etten conveys over this heightened piece floors me. This is a wave of hope in the face of a self-inflicted sense of disappointment. The dawning realization of the bridge – that there is no ideal moment of self – is the freedom she laments losing. By the end, she coldly pushes her younger self away, not as a rejection of the past but an embracement of her current state. The roaring synth-line might be abrasive, but Van Etten leaves the song with more power than when she started.

54. Eddie Cochran – “Summertime Blues” (1958)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations”

“Summertime Blues” is an extraordinarily simple song. The simplicity is part of the enduring charm – this is a track that feels emblematic of rock and roll at large. It is presented with the same youthful energy that would dominate the punk scene a couple decades on, a preeminent example of popular music as an expression of teenage angst. Cochran’s problems feel as slight as they are hopeless. People idealize their youth, but “Summertime Blues” is a perfect reminder that it is a time dominated by other’s whims.

Cochran’s delivery granted him a striking sense of personality that few rock stars of that era pulled off. The song repeatedly comes to a stop as he bellows out insulting phrases from adult figures in the most mocking tone he can manage. These instrumental pauses help highlight the simple yet frantic strums. Later lines accentuate his naïve yet fitting perspective, calling upon the United Nations and U.S. senators to handle his monetary woes. Though he might be overstating things by a degree, it perfectly represents the dire feeling of being an actual teenager. What “Summertime Blues” lacks in depth is made up in its truth.

Though each part might be simple, the whole of “Summertime Blues” is ridiculously catchy. That rolling bassline gives a perfect groove, and the handclaps add a youthful energy. The lead guitar is as forceful as it is insistent. Though rock would add several layers of complexity as it evolved, “Summertime Blues” remains a perfect encapsulation of rock and roll in its rawest form.

53. Fela Kuti – “Zombie” (1976)
from the album Zombie

Key lyrics:
“Zombie no go think, unless you tell ‘em to think”

“Zombie” is perhaps the oddest song I can cite as essential in the development of my musical tastes. Alongside a dozen indie and alternative rock acts, this stray Afrobeat track got me to pursue music as its own distinct hobby. Up until the late 2000s, most of my music listening was dominated by video game soundtracks. 2008 was the year that changed everything, seeing the release of both Rock Band 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV. Between those two games, I (re)discovered Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, LCD Soundsystem, Sonic Youth; I never even paid Bob Dylan much attention until playing “Tangled Up in Blue” a dozen times in Rock Band. But the Grand Theft Auto series is truly special in its commitment to dedicating a few in-game radio stations to more obscure genres.

“Zombie” was the perfect choice for a game where the player spends half their time racing through the streets. This is a twelve minute epic of marching rhythms and forceful horns, dedicating itself entirely to crafting a sense of motion. It opened my eyes to a world of music I had never imagined, slowly pushing me to reach outside my comfort zone of rock and roll.

Outside of this personal influence, Fela Kuti truly perfected a singular sound. “Zombie” is like jazz at full force with a funky edge, tied together by communal chanting. Fela Kuti plays the commander, shouting bitterly sarcastic orders. This is a song with purpose, a political statement so effective that it caused a military strike in response. The fact this song has an actual body count marks it as a key piece in art as an act of resistance. But more than anything, the experience of listening is absolutely enthralling. “Zombie” dashes through its epic length like no time has passed.

52. The Velvet Underground – “Sweet Jane” (1970)
from the album Loaded

Key lyrics:
“But anyone who ever had a heart
Oh, they wouldn’t turn around and break it”

After creating two of the most experimental albums in rock during the late-60s, The Velvet Underground mellowed out after John Cale left the band. “Sweet Jane” is a simple pop rock tune, the type that proves its grand experimenters did, in fact, know how to make typically pleasant music and simply had bigger ideas to prove. As far as pop rock goes, this is simply one of the best.

Lou Reed was an unusual lead for a rock band. “Sweet Jane” helped bring his chill attitude to the front. It turned out that, when not singing about heroin or sex dungeons, Reed gives off a neighborly warmth. He sings about two subjects as a distant observer with an almost monotonous amble. Here and there, Reed inserts key exclamations, as if his typically cold demeanor cannot restrain the warmth of the scene he is describing. His low energy performance sets up an explosive third verse, where he turns his sights on the ‘evil mothers’ who try to paint the world as a dire place. His impassioned delivery hits so much harder after being taught to think of him as cool and collected, a burst of sincerity from an unexpected source.

The simple structure of the instrumentation is a large part of the appeal. It has been covered numerous times, and one could easily argue the Cowboy Junkies did it better. The key to making a simple song last is all in the performance. Reed imbues “Sweet Jane” with a mirthful energy, joyous while acknowledging a world-weary view. If their earlier work was a journey through the myriad taboo subjects people pursue to find inner peace, “Sweet Jane” is their message distilled – to make your own happiness in this world.

51. King Crimson – “21st Century Schizoid Man” (1969)
from the album In the Court of the Crimson King

Key lyrics:
“Nothing he’s got he really needs”

To simply label “21st Century Schizoid Man” a progressive rock track misses out on its most definitive element. After a bigger than life opening, King Crimson descend into an extended jazz-rock jam session. Now, jazz and rock are such expansive genres that few combinations come out the same. This particular version resonates because it pulls from the most chaotic brand of jazz. This is as fiery as Mingus’s most brutal pieces, all while letting the typical rock instruments play their part. Most rock songs pull from the blues, making this a perfect window into a world where jazz instead served as a central foundation.

“21st Century Schizoid Man” has two distinct spirits, yet they never lose track of each other. By returning to the opening section, the instrumental break serves as an extended bridge. The finale erupts from this section as if nothing has happened, bigger and louder than when it started. The vocal sections are the polar opposite of the instrumental break, drawing out notes for grand emphasis. The juxtaposition of the two makes a truly intimidating atmosphere – to be confronted with a self-assured madman, tossed into the abyss, only to be dragged back out again. Both chaos and structure are used for violence.

Many progressive rock tracks immediately age themselves – our visions of the future tend to be marked by the time those visions took place. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” however, has grown more impressive with age. The distorted vocals conjure up a mad general, but the particular battleground could be any moment in time or space. With so few bands pursuing this mix of jazz and rock, nothing has supplanted it. Many bands chase after a cool image, only for one generation’s idea of cool to become dorky to the next. “21st Century Schizoid Man” speaks to such a pervasive idea to have never lost its cool.

My Top 250 Songs Part 7 (#100-76)

100. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “Bellbottoms” (1994)
from the album Orange

When we talk about great works of art, there is an overemphasis of the influencers at the expense of the experimenters. Those who arrive first garner more attention than those who perfect. In many cases, the originators are exceptional – no one would follow directly in their footsteps if what they stumbled upon did not work. But what always captures my attention are the artists who, seeing the ever-evolving music scene, fuse together such a specific sound that it denies the possibility of influence. Bands like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion exist at a very specific extreme – “Bellbottoms” may be classified as a punk blues song, but that reads as an approximation. Too much is going on here to be meaningfully classified.

“Bellbottoms” is a song in motion. The opening very much evokes the downtempo expectations of a ‘punk blues’ track, though a gliding string backdrop hints at the impending sonic insanity. This is not exactly an instrumental piece, but Jon Spencer works more as an announcer than a vocalist. About a third of the way through, the bassline picks up a bit more intensity as a wall of screaming takes over, only for the music to stop entirely as Jon Spencer addresses the audience. From this point on, the song erupts into a psychotic jam session, always ramping up its frenetic energy. After a certain point, genre indicators lose meaning – “Bellbottoms” is the traditional rock arrangement distilled into a raw force. Blues Explosion is an apt name, as “Bellbottoms” feels like a musical Big Bang using blues as the spark.

99. Pigbag – “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” (1981)
non-album single

Dance-punk is an odd genre to discuss. The names that usually come to mind, such as LCD Soundsystem or The Rapture, would perhaps be better labelled as dance-punk revivalists. At the same time, the name might as well be a retronym. The stray tracks that make up the early hits in the genre feel more like one-offs than a unified sound – prominent post-punk bands like Gang of Four and The Clash simply strayed close to dance music occasionally, while bands more explicitly committed to the style like ESG and Liquid Liquid never had more than a few hits. As such, a song like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” gained new meaning over time. Like “Bellbottoms,” it merges half a dozen stray sonic elements. However, you can see connective tissue stretching between Pigbag and so many odd future acts.

“Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” is far more than just dance and punk. This is a track dominated by conga drums and ska-style horns. Though it frequently returns to the same definitive riff, there are also several breakdowns and unpredictable turns. The sax and horns occasionally skitter around each other, creating a riotous discord. Linking this all together is one of the grooviest basslines in rock. In fact, its link to punk might be the most tenuous element of its existence. But even as a pure instrumental, this rocks the DIY aesthetic, its chaotic patterns suggesting a group who simply picked up a bunch of instruments without too much practice and went all out.

98. Orange Juice – “Rip It Up” (1982)
from the album Rip It Up

Key lyrics:
“I hope to god you’re not as dumb as you make out
I hope to god (I hope to god)
And I hope to god I’m not as numb as you make out
I hope to god (I hope to god)”

“Rip It Up” is a quintessential New Wave song that could easily fade into the pack – it is a song that plays so well to its genre that it risks being labelled generic. But there is a coyness in its presentation, both in its instrumentation and vocal delivery, that has slowly grown on me over the years. The electronic bass that opens the song, the first hit to use a 303, is bubbly, almost queasy. The odd inflection of the 303 would become a definitive element within electronic music, but “Rip It Up” is among the rare tracks to combine it with otherwise traditional instruments. This creates a layer of artifice that makes “Rip It Up” as off-putting as it is enticing.

Edwyn Collins’ vocal stylings are similarly uneasy. There is a certain bravado to his voice, and several lines find him rapidly descending to a guttural bellow. Backing vocals mix so well at certain points that Collins sounds thrice as large. These backing vocals occasionally split apart as well, a contrast suggesting these voices are many and one at once. The effect is something illusory, made all the more confounding by the relative accessibility of the overall sound.

Not everything that defines “Rip It Up” is unusual – the saxophone solo is traditional yet stellar. But the overall bounciness of this track refuses to take off; as Collins sings about the sinking feeling of falling for someone, the song simply warbles. Orange Juice make all these odd choices to create a sonic simulation of love-struck anxiety.

97. Big Star – “Thirteen” (1972)
from the album #1 Record

Key lyrics:
“Would you be an outlaw for my love?”

Mocking our early teenage years comes easy. It is a time dominated by pubescent discoveries and big feelings too complex to express in our childhood vocabularies. Most people I know would rather erase these particular memories than linger on them. Big Star, on the other hand, wrote a loving ode to this awkward moment of growing up. With a melancholy tone, Alex Chilton retraces the mundane details of a first love. It is with utmost respect that he reflects upon misguided declarations. Though his narrator knows little about making a relationship work, Chilton remembers the dire passion of youth. Our first loves are almost doomed by design, but Big Star capture the numbing gravitas of going through it.

“Thirteen” benefits greatly from specific imagery. Lines about getting tickets for the dance put us in the moment, bridging any distance created by Chilton’s age as a vocalist. A line where he asks his love to share his opinion about The Rolling Stones to impress her father is profound in its depiction of childhood innocence and misunderstandings. Others might look upon these memories with embarrassment, but Big Star frame it as an essential part of the human experience.

The structure of the song is essential to its nostalgic atmosphere. The simple acoustic guitar adds an air of innocence, while short bursts of harmonies draw out the emotion. The guitar solo halfway through keeps down to earth, simple and clean in its effect. Throughout, there is an ever-so-subtle change in tempo, suggesting a growing unease in the narrator. “Thirteen” is a stunningly graceful depiction of an awkward but defining time in our lives.

96. Nick Drake – “Pink Moon” (1972)
from the album Pink Moon

Key lyrics:
“And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all”

“Pink Moon” is almost too simple. Other than a brief piano, this short song is nothing more than Nick Drake and an acoustic guitar. At the same time, it feels impenetrable – what, exactly, is a pink moon, and does it present a threat or enlightenment? The energy is positive if not quite optimistic; is Drake awaiting this change, or has he blissfully accepted the end? Nick Drake is a complex figure, but what I know for certain is the comfort I find in this piece.

Nick Drake has an unusual warmth in his voice, even as he mumbles through the delivery – I cannot parse the first line without checking the lyrics. Though lacking the chamber folk complexities of “River Man,” “Pink Moon” still feels like it’s coming from an alternate timeline. Here, he is a mad prophet who has seen too much from the other side, delivering a message we cannot grasp. And though it is clear he has journeyed to a dark place, there is peace in his company.

That brief piano does a lot of emotional lifting. It is lighter than air, a moment of pure beauty in a song otherwise lost within so many conflicting emotions. At a little over two minutes, “Pink Moon” is straight to the point and a testament to the value of ordinary folk music. Nick Drake was a man who struggled with direct expression, and “Pink Moon” reveals how much can be said through the sound of music. No clear words are necessary for “Pink Moon” to make me feel something enormous.

95. Spiritualized – “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” (1997)
from the album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

Key lyrics:
“All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away”

“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” starts simply enough. At first, Jason Pierce sings along to a low tempo take on “Pachelbel’s Canon.” But as he repeats this opening line, another version of his voice comes in singing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The crinkling audio and a satellite beep suggest this second voice is an astronaut drifting in space. A wider array of instruments get added as we enter a third verse, where yet another voice is layered atop the others. The three vocals weave in and out of the forefront, helping form a dizzying, hypnotic experience. Buried deep beneath everything else is yet another verse which never takes the center stage.

The massive layering here conceptually sounds like it should create a cacophony. But due to its strong mixing, “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” operates as a monolithic round. This is the rare song that captures the magic of The Beach Boys’ greatest hits, a wall of sound and human voices that works despite everything suggesting otherwise. Each layer is crisp enough that you can follow its trail deep inside, yet everything works better together.

Spiritualized are doing a lot more than showing off their technical capabilities. By combining baroque with classic rock and space age ambience, their choice of references suggests timelessness. This is not one love song but every love song at the same time. Sometimes, falling in love feels so immense that nothing can represent it alone. This song condenses all of time and space to suggest that love can be bigger than life.

94. The Flaming Lips – “Do You Realize??” (2002)
from the album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Key lyrics:
“Do you realize
That you have the most beautiful face?”

There are a handful of songs that simply roll over my emotions every time I listen. “Do You Realize??” is a prime example, a song that begins as a loving address only for the narrator to become overwhelmed by our place in the universe and the fleeting passage of time. There are plenty of love songs and plenty of existential songs about death, but “Do You Realize??” manages the impossible task of covering both grounds at once. The curvature of the song is essential to its message; by opening and closing with the same line, The Flaming Lips make a grand statement. At first, there is a suggestion of insignificance – how can anyone think about love when everything is ultimately so meaningless? But right at the end, love is given as the answer to make all these big ideas bearable.

“Do You Realize??” starts loud, almost celebratory. For the first several lines, Wayne Coyne really plays up the love song aspects. The transition into deathly topics does not occur as a bomb drop but instead a shuddered whisper. At its highest moment, Coyne says nothing beyond the title – words cannot capture the heightened state of pondering everything at once. As he then repeats his deathly pondering, many of the instruments grow quiet, leaving us floating with his words. What ultimately blows me away is the flurry of emotions this sends me. Even in the times when it has reduced me to a sobbing mess, there has always been a sense of hope underlining it all.

93. Four Tops – “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (1966)
from the album Reach Out

“Reach Out I’ll Be There” stands among Motown’s biggest hits. It also stands out among that selection due to its unusually rough edge. The lyrics here could make a standard pop tune, but the production suggests anything but. Levi Stubbs sings with a sense of desperate urgency, and this song pushes his voice to a breaking point. As he shouts these seemingly comforting phrases, the tone takes on a dire edge, as though his love is dangling so precariously that this might be their last chance.

Holland-Dozier-Holland reached a high with this song. The trio fused together numerous distinct styles, intentionally evoking Bob Dylan by forcing Stubbs into his strained shout while taking disparate genre influences to separate the verses and chorus. As the song shifts from a minor to major key, it generates tension instead of relief. This is another love song at an extreme, simulating the panic of uncertainty as you watch a lover stumble. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” absolutely oozes with unease.

Though changing up the Motown sound, this is far from a deconstruction. The Four Tops were excellent performers, and the backing harmonies bring this together. Like an inversed “Where Did Our Love Go,” the backing vocalists lend an air of hope to counter Stubbs’ desperation. The chorus is a masterwork, balancing the tension perfectly. The lead vocals could have suggested something a whole lot darker on their own – a man shouting his love tends to be a scary sight. But the bliss of the harmonies reinforces his good intentions. The construction of this song appears as precarious as a house of cards, yet the final result is an unforgettable and haunting classic.

92. Kraftwerk – “The Model” (1978)
from the album The Man-Machine

Key lyrics:
“It only takes a camera to change her mind”

Throughout their career, Kraftwerk have made songs about roadways and trains and robots and pocket calculators. It should come as no surprise that their one hit with a human subject is somehow among their coldest productions. “The Model” is a light take on the stalker genre, framed as a photographer who can’t forget a model who has since hit it big. Kraftwerk’s typical vocal monotony grows genuinely uneasy while discussing a human woman.

The central synth-line bubbles up and down with every word, dominating a wide space between each line. This interplay between voice and synthesizer is a definitive turn. Before The Man-Machine, their work could be classified as an early form of general electronic music. They featured vocals, but largely as atmospheric scene setting rather than a lead part. While shifting their focus to a person, it is clear that Kraftwerk turned to a more human sound. With the structure of a dance track, “The Model” helped lay the foundation for synth-pop.

Their more strictly electronic sensibilities linger on this track, the sections between verses going off on extended tangents before returning to the central structure. “The Model” acts as a rare, distinct bridge between two eras – but it plays to the best of both worlds. The instrumental sections suggest curiosity about the ever-changing world, while the vocals capture a sickening idea of how little changes about human nature as technology evolves. It is detached, but only to highlight the crudeness of the narrator. There is a bright and shiny world outside, but some have nothing better to do than lust after someone they will never see again.

91. Stevie Wonder – “Living for the City” (1973)
from the album Innervisions

Key lyrics:
“His father works some days for fourteen hours
And you can bet he barely makes a dollar”

“Living for the City” is Stevie Wonder’s sprawling, dystopic epic. The lyrics tell of a poor young black man who tries to escape the south, only to find similar hardship in the city. The early verses paint a stunning image of his family, the promise of the city acting as a beacon of hope. The middle takes a sharp turn, as the man arrives and is subsequently framed and arrested. Wonder’s vision of America is as bleak as they come – for black people, there is no safe haven. The closing verse is a desperate plea – this can change, but we must act swiftly and with care.

The instrumentation matches the massive narrative scale. Wonder himself played all the instruments and delivers all the vocals aside from the spoken interlude. Wonder really shows his vocal chops here, adding layer upon layer during the bridge until he is a one-man funk collective. His vocals beyond the interlude section find him singing with a hoarse croak, elevating the already desperate lyrics to a true nightmare. The layered vocals surrounding this sequence help form an incomparable climax.

The electronic soundscape similarly casts this as a key moment in popular music. Wonder suggests the same monolithic, futurized version of modern life that Kraftwerk would soon embody. For “Living in the City,” this glossy production is a sinister lure – the extended spoken sequence absolutely shatters the illusion, revealing all the grit hiding just beneath the surface. By briefly shedding his typically uplifting nature, Wonder managed to craft a poignant masterpiece.

90. TV on the Radio – “Wolf Like Me” (2006)
from the album Return to Cookie Mountain

Key lyrics:
“Baby doll, I recognize
You’re a hideous thing inside”

As I have dived through these favorite songs of mine, a consistent thread has been high audio clarity. No matter the genre, most bands want their listeners to make out the specific sounds. “Wolf Like Me” exists in murkier water. Each element of this song is mixed closely together, and the guitar feedback adds an element of light static that blurs the line between sounds. In this form, TV on the Radio make it difficult to look at “Wolf Like Me” as anything but a cohesive whole. This is like an inverted Wall of Sound, using an ever-present noise to reduce the soundscape. Even on the finest speakers, this song refuses to shake the aesthetic of a poorly-tuned radio.

The song beneath this distortion is suitably grimy. The singsong vocals are difficult to discern without close attention, especially with several unusual phrases thrown into the mix. The few lines that can be picked up on with ease paint a lusty picture. More important than the words is their ceaseless delivery, like listening to a madman ramble.

Despite all these noisy layers, “Wolf Like Me” still falls into a distinct groove. With the guitar playing like white noise, the other elements take a more central part. With our attention forced to the rhythm, this operates as a most unlikely dance song. The bridge is essential, the static momentarily fading while the vocals maintain an uneasy edge. This sets up for an even messier finale as the distortion returns with more intensity. “Wolf Like Me” plays dirty, a peculiar track that nevertheless keeps pulling me back to parse its bizarre construction.

89. Paul Simon – “Graceland” (1986)
from the album Graceland

Key lyrics:
“And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart”

The rhythm on “Graceland” is bouncy in a way I have rarely encountered. Nearly every song creates a sense of motion, of course, but most work in a predictable manner. “Graceland” is not a particularly complex song, but the irregular clap every other bar creates a back and forth energy. It matches the subject matter perfectly, like riding a bus over a bumpy road. On an album experimenting with world music, “Graceland” might just be the most ordinary song – yet it acts like a thesis statement, treating Elvis Presley’s estate like the heart of American music before contemplating other hearts. This is the song where Simon perfects his own craft to justify stepping beyond.

Though the central arrangement is standard, the choice of instruments sets it apart. Little details are added throughout – the bit that always hits me is how part of the percussion sounds like cannon fire after the second verse. There is an incomparable fullness to this sound as everything comes together.

Though featuring beautiful lyrics, Paul Simon manages to say a lot through absence. Outside of a few mentions of Memphis, Tennessee, there are no explicit details of the location. Simon therefore forces a double meaning, making Graceland a literal and spiritual place. He has no need to clarify that his holy land is the estate of a rock star; should it not be obvious his religion is music? Though weaving a tale about pilgrims, this is truly a celebration of music itself. Even as a lover leaves, Simon knows music will be his saving grace.

88. Brian Eno – “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” (1974)
from the album Here Come the Warm Jets

Key lyrics:
“Why ask why?”

As a producer, Brian Eno helped shape the modern music scene. Working with acts like David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2, he assisted in forming larger than life soundscapes. His own career is a bit more obscure. He is perhaps best known for popularizing ambient music during his later career, but he kicked things off in the glam scene. But even then, Brian Eno feels less like a rock star than a producer trying to push the boundaries of popular music. “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” certainly has the vocal hallmarks of a glam song, but the mixing pushes it into uncharted territory.

The dense instrumentation is relentless; listening to “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” is like drowning in sound. Though Eno is a perfectly capable vocalist, he mixes himself like just another instrument. While playing to the very specific glam aesthetic, Eno instead lays out an aggressive prototype to his ambient developments. He simply accomplishes this while using plenty of guitars and bass. The multi-layered sound makes it difficult to discern every individual piece, resulting in a singular focus like rock had rarely seen before – where bands like The Beach Boys kept every detail of their Wall of Sound crisp, Eno seeks to overwhelm.

As such, “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” can be an unpleasant experience at first. It honestly took me ages to properly digest any of Eno’s early solo output. But, over time, I have come to appreciate him as a man who views music as a sonic playground. “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” is such a striking deconstruction of glam rock that I find myself returning to it more often than most traditional works in the genre.

87. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl” (2016)
from the album Puberty 2

Key lyrics:
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me
But I do, I finally do”

“Your Best American Girl” starts so quietly that I instinctually pump up the volume before processing what song came on. This is an effective enough trick that two other songs in my top 100 do the same. Yet the quiet beginning here plays a more meaningful part in the context of the lyrics. With a Japanese mother and American father, Mitski struggled to find her place in the world. This quiet beginning is an elegant method of representing her sense of lacking a voice.

As the song progresses through the first two verses, the volume slowly grows louder. Her lyrics focus more on her lover than herself, only undercutting her place in the relationship. The instrumentation plays a huge part, starting off with an acoustic guitar alone. The drums come in right as she closes out the first verse. After a slow build, Mitski skips directly to the payoff with the chorus. The acoustic guitar is replaced with a grunge-worthy electric riff. Continuing to play with volume, Mitski briefly pulls back for the bridge, only to again unleash a wall of noise upon us.

The slight turn in lyrics is just as powerful. At first, Mitski only thinks she approves of her mother. By the end, she firmly asserts her approval. “Your Best American Girl” is all about finding one’s voice, and every inch of it reinforces that idea. Yet after all this noise, Mitski saves her final punch for the quieting outro. She again expresses her doubt, the acoustic guitar returning to close everything out. This is a powerful anthem for self-acceptance, but Mitski acknowledges that true acceptance is a process.

86. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta” (2015)
from the album To Pimp a Butterfly

Key lyrics:
“I swore I wouldn’t tell
But most of ya’ll sharing bars
Like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”

Kendrick Lamar is among the most socially-minded hip hop stars, but that does not mean he is above the occasional rap braggadocio. “King Kunta” finds him returning to the industry criticism of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” this time turning his sights on certain unnamed contemporaries. This captures the bombastic sound of “Backseat Freestyle,” but where that earlier song was ironic, Kendrick uses it here to absolutely drag his targets across concrete. When Kendrick steps back to boast, you know he means it – though he has more meaningful topics to explore, songs like “King Kunta” show he can play the game better than anyone.

The production here is top-notch, built around a slick funk groove. Female back-up singers add a playful quality, echoing certain phrases to emphasize the mocking nature. After the opening minute, Kendrick rarely falls into a comfort zone, letting the instruments rise with each verse. As this reaches a high point, it immediately shifts gears entirely, the backing music sounding as though it is being funneled through a distant jet. When the familiar groove returns, it is cut down by a gunshot. After another interruption, Kendrick finally lets it play out through the end. Kendrick will give us what we want, but he knows to make us wait for it while dazzling us with the unexpected.

The whole of “King Kunta” is so musically-minded that I almost neglected the excellent lyrics. Though Kendrick Lamar can churn out heartfelt narratives on par with Bob Dylan, his playful songs showcase his ability to turn a phrase. From the wordplay of ‘sharing bars’ to the complex references, “King Kunta” is such an effective boast because Kendrick plays from a higher level.

85. Kate Bush – “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” (1985)
from the album Hounds of Love

Key lyrics:
“Let me steal this moment from you now”

“Running Up That Hill” is a love song of a different caliber. Kate Bush, though apparently happy with her lover, deeply wishes to swap places so they can better understand one another. No matter the power of love, she suggests the gender roles of our society create an impenetrable barrier. In classic Kate Bush style, she turns to mysticism over a direct discussion. This vision sets the stage for a grandiose piece.

A sustained note kicks things off, serving as a heavenly backdrop throughout the song. The opening pairs a synthesizer with a drum machine. A simple arrangement, but the synth-line is striking, introspective and playful as it warbles. Kate Bush begins running immediately out the gate, layering her voice to both echo and harmonize. The song subtly evolves from there. The layered vocals grow frantic as the synth changes tone. After the bridge, an actual drum set kicks off and a guitar joins in. Both of these elements are sparsely used, popping in only to emphasize a phrase here and there. The backing vocals become a ghastly wail throughout the last two minutes. Though Bush set the scene with a bombastic electronic presence, the true strength in “Running Up That Hill” is how that bombast allows the other elements to slowly grow to life.

Kate Bush has been an enduring figure because she crafts song as flashy as they are understated. The electronic elements immediately date this, but the complex arrangement similarly marks it as a high point for the era. “Running Up That Hill” reveals that showing age can be its own form of timelessness – there is power in the ability to immediately conjure a bygone era.

84. Daft Punk – “Around the World” (1997)
from the album Homework

Repeat a word enough times and it loses all meaning. Over the length of “Around the World,” the title is said well over a hundred times. To Daft Punk, this phrase is merely another note to play. A calculated choice, this monotonous, robotic phrase dominates our attention. Like a pair of master illusionists, Daft Punk are using the art of misdirection. By keeping us so focused on this one part, their subtler shifts are allowed to wash over us. “Around the World” perfectly balances the fine line house music necessitates – to be infectiously danceable to a fault and then shift gears just enough to hold our attention.

Not the vocals but the bass defines this song. Michel Gondry perfectly captured the feeling in the iconic music video. A prolonged ascent leads into a rapid fall, only for the process to repeat as though moving ever upwards. The other instruments skitter around this central bassline. The trick here is that Daft Punk are constantly dropping the instruments in and out. “Around the World” captures what separates good DJs from the merely passable. By relying on the same segments throughout, “Around the World” has a singular identity. But Daft Punk are also exploring how different combinations work together, spending just enough time with one mix before shifting into the next.

“Around the World” has held up over the years because it plays well in two settings. As a club hit, it is the perfect type of song for zoning out and dancing – few basslines are this slick. But for those of us listening intently at home, those slight changes make an engaging experience.

83. Le Tigre – “Deceptacon” (1999)
from the album Le Tigre

Key lyrics:
“Wanna disco? Wanna see me disco?”

It is probably clear by now that I have a soft spot for dance-punk. Yet of all the dance-punk acts I love, few lean into the punk side like Le Tigre. Formed by Kathleen Hanna after her earlier band Bikini Kill fell apart, she carried her riot grrrl energy into the electroclash scene. Like other pre-2000s dance-punk acts, it is unclear whether there was any direct link between Le Tigre and its predecessors. Part of the fun of early dance-punk is how organically bands stumbled into the sound; a punk band simply has to toy with disco and it seemingly comes in a recognizable form.

Kathleen Hanna is an unsung master of punk vocals. “Deceptacon” contains disarmingly bratty delivery, a type of rough mocking that can turn any song into a sonic assault. Yet she also suggests a playful side – her vicious lines are clearly tearing into someone specific. The song is played at a frenetic speed, yet the minimal soundscape leaves a chill atmosphere. This leaves room for the guitar to occasionally shred to life, an uncommon presence that dominates any moment where it appears.

The simple yet fast beat makes this a perfect club song. Hanna’s vocals work just as well on the dance side of things. She quotes a largely forgotten doo-wop spoof, her rhythmic delivery taking a purely sonic form. These bursts help emphasize the beat. “Deceptacon” is true to punk and dance in equal measure, a surprisingly rare feat despite an entire genre forming around this combination.

82. Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting on You)” (2014)
from the album Singles

Key lyrics:
“You know, when people change
They gain a peace, but they lose one too”

“Seasons (Waiting on You)” feels like the little indie song that could. The lead single off Future Island’s fourth album, “Seasons” seemed destined to obscurity. This sparse synth-pop sound might have been too understated to initially draw an audience. Future Islands took an appearance on David Letterman and absolutely ran with it. Before anyone knew the song itself, Samuel Herring upsold it on live TV. He sung with death metal growls, exaggerating the already heightened emotions. With Herring’s unusual dance and frankly bizarre vocals, the Letterman performance went viral. By the end of the year, outlets like NME and Pitchfork were calling it the song of the year.

The actual recorded version is effectively subdued. This is synth-pop at its most minimal, a few whirring electronic bits that kick the song off and then tone down almost immediately. As the synthesizer drifts from note to note, the guitar keeps up a wall of constant strumming. This is not a complex song by any measure, but the simple arrangement allows Herring to soar over it. Though lacking the iconic death metal growls (but still featuring a raspy edge), his natural performance journeys through several strong emotions. At once, he portrays grief and the sense of hope that follows. This is ostensibly a break-up song, but Herring tears through the very essence of the human experience.

The Letterman performance did not shape my own opinion – I actually watched it for the first time this morning, though knew what to expect having already seen the band live. But that performance did kick off the hype that led to my awareness of its existence. It’s a numbing realization, to know how many bands must be sitting on something great, only needing a spotlight to turn their way.

81. Talking Heads – “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” (1983)
from the album Speaking in Tongues

Key lyrics:
“Home is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there”

Talking Heads are rarely a band to wear their hearts on their sleeves. From “Psycho Killer” to “Burning Down the House,” the majority of their songs linger at an emotional distance. Even the highly resonant “Once in a Lifetime” is a bit esoteric in its meaning. “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” is an outlier in its ordinariness. David Byrne sings from the heart, individual phrases still surreal but all capturing the warmth of a long-time love.

The simplicity is embedded into the song’s creation. To guarantee a sense of mundanity, Talking Heads handed off their instruments to one another. Through their inexperience, they play more for comfort than to impress. As David Byrne sings about looking for a place he has already found, every inch of this song is already familiar. Yet everything is played at such an understated pace that the repetition warms instead of annoys. This captures not the butterflies of falling in love but the contentment of knowing you have someone to rely on.

Despite its relative simplicity, “This Must Be the Place” stills feels quintessentially Talking Heads. David Byrne’s delivery is among his most powerful, while the little riffs they do manage fit neatly into their particular brand of New Wave. If all Talking Heads songs were this stripped down, they would get boring fast. Their general oddity is what makes “This Must Be the Place” feel so necessary among their body of work. After so many albums with cold exteriors, this song is their human heart.

80. Bruce Springsteen – “Atlantic City” (1982)
from the album Nebraska

Key lyrics:
“Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”

Nebraska finds Springsteen at his most bare, the instrumentation as sparse as his subjects are heavy. If “The River” represented crushed hope, “Atlantic City” is a place where hope was never allowed to form in the first place. The opening line finds the right balance between the specific and absurd; only those in Philadelphia had any reason to know Philip Testa until Springsteen referenced his death. The nickname “Chicken Man” immediately spins this song as a local myth – Springsteen is going full folk here.

The mere existence of Nebraska is one of those lucky incidents in music. Springsteen was trying to work on his next album and recorded a few demos to show his band. A few found their way onto the future album, Born in the U.S.A., but Springsteen was convinced to keep the sparse instrumentation for others. Nebraska is essentially a demo reel, capturing Springsteen’s energy in its rawest form.

But even in demo form, Springsteen crafts a grand soundscape with “Atlantic City.” Though he plays alone, there are several layers. The acoustic guitar is played with great force, while a harmonica pops in after the chorus. A mandolin subtly joins the mix, adding a hollow, ghostly tone. Springsteen mixes in shouted vocals, an angered echo underpinning his more subdued lead. The chorus is a desperate plea, the words carrying a tiny hint of hope cut down by his anxious delivery. Springsteen has written plenty of songs about trying to escape a bad situation, but none so convincingly suggest impending doom like “Atlantic City.”

79. A Tribe Called Quest – “Can I Kick It?” (1990)
from the album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

Key lyrics:
“Boy, this track really has a lot of flavor”

While hip hop was starting to lean more into gangster imagery, A Tribe Called Quest popped onto the scene to deliver the last great burst of golden age goodness. Built around a sample of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Can I Kick It?” is a low tempo jam. Though featuring little more than that sample, a simple beat, muted scratches, and a bit of background chanting, the mixing creates a musical journey. Just take the first verse, where everything but the beat drops out as Q-Tip raps. Halfway through the verse, the Lou Reed sample slides back in. This verse is followed by a wall of scratching and disparate samples. A similar structure occurs during Phife Dawg’s verse, though the Lou Reed sample plays in small bursts through the first half. “Can I Kick It?” makes the most out of a small set.

Then you get to the rhyme scheme. During Q-Tip’s verse, he rhymes with the same vowel sound every line, but subtly shifts the closing consonant. Each line hits with emphasis from the previous. Phife Dawg follows this with an even stronger two-syllable scheme. As far as pure rhyming goes, this is among the best music has to offer. The laidback presentation makes this all easy to digest, as if the Tribe really just wants to show off. But just to make sure everyone is playing along, the chorus is a simple yet effective call and response. This is a party song through and through, a vital dose from an era when hip hop was all about fun.

78. Joy Division – “Atmosphere” (1980)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Your confusion, my illusion
Worn like a mask of self-hate, confronts and then dies”

“Atmosphere” is a difficult song to digest, impossible to separate from Ian Curtis’s suicide. This song was released as a single soon after and feels uncomfortably like a self-requiem. Even without this exterior knowledge, “Atmosphere” hits with unusual gravity. The drums give a sense of stumbling over and over again, one of the most striking beats in all of rock. Outside of Ian Curtis’s tragic life, a sad truth about Joy Division is that the other members often get overlooked despite forming New Order. Curtis’s vocals are powerful, but Stephen Morris gives “Atmosphere” and so much of Closer its weight.

Of course, “Atmosphere” is among their best tracks because Ian Curtis delivers the strongest vocals of his career. The range he shows during the third verse is mesmerizing, with the penultimate shout of “don’t walk away” coming across as a most despairing demand. Every line in this song is extended, Ian Curtis inching out every last drop of emotional vulnerability.

Despite the dark atmosphere, “Atmosphere” is not without hope. Bernard Sumner’s keyboard comes in after the first verse and gives a meditative touch. When discussing the works of suicidal artists, it is key to remember that they were still alive while making their art. If Ian Curtis had not committed suicide, this would be remembered in a very different light – a depressed man finding his voice and speaking up. Though Curtis did not win his battle, his works have lingered in the popular conscious for his ability to so perfectly express what is rarely said. In my darkest times, songs like “Atmosphere” remind me I am not alone in my troubles.

77. Björk – “Hyperballad” (1995)
from the album Post

Key lyrics:
“I imagine what my body would sound like
Slamming against those rocks
And when it lands
Will my eyes be closed or open?”

Though layered in complexities, “Hyperballad” might just be Björk’s most straightforwardly beautiful song. Like many great Björk songs, it fuses together a string section and electronic elements to create something both classical and futuristic. The big difference is that “Hyperballad” largely lacks the tension between these distinct sounds. Both are used to make something positively uplifting. There is a hint of conflict with the heavy bass that opens the song, but a spurt of electronic beats during the chorus puts the mood at ease. The central contrast here is between the meditative verses and the joyous chorus, but they work together in perfect harmony.

The lyrics are evocative, seemingly counter to the majestic soundscape by line but making a beautiful whole. This is a violent song, finding Björk tossing objects over a cliff and ultimately imagining throwing herself off as well. She is invoking the ‘call of the void,’ those nightmarish considerations which cross our minds solely as reminders of their own possibilities. But she finds reassurance in these dark thoughts, recognizing her actual place in the world as far more comforting. “Hyperballad” finds happiness in the absence of darkness.

“Hyperballad” is also a strong slice of early electronic-infused pop music. The beats that dominate the chorus are ready for the dancefloor, a pulse-pounding rhythm that suggest Björk is being carried away by thoughts of her lover. Yet while celebrating love, Björk focuses exclusively on moments of being alone. Just like the quiet ballad and electronic pop sections support each other without intersecting, Björk finds strength through love even on her own.

76. Wilco – “Jesus, Etc.” (2002)
from the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Key lyrics:
“Our love is all of God’s money
Everyone is a burning sun”

Though the apparent 9/11 references were entirely incidental, the song being written before that day, “Jesus, Etc.” perfectly captured the spirit of America in the following years. This is Americana at its most melancholic, picturing skyscrapers packed together while the people inside could not feel further apart. The narrator comforts someone overwhelmed by this idea, of a place so dense yet cold. And his words are comforting, positing each and every one of us as a sun, first setting but then burning. Though we may feel as though we are drifting alone, we burn bright enough to make it through.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot captures a band in transition. Though Wilco started as an alternative country band, Jeff Tweedy wanted to push the group in bold new directions. The resulting album feels like a tour of possibilities, somehow managing a unified sound while each individual part takes a distinct direction. “Jesus, Etc.” is the sad violin song of the bunch, and its success is one of simple beauty. Wilco took an underutilized instrument and crafted a bold song around its potential in an uncommon style. All a great song needs sometimes is the right instrument.

The key to “Jesus, Etc.” is how ordinary the violin sounds with the rest of the instruments. Much of the popular music that uses this instrument is doing so to create an elevated sound, to suggest something classical. The part in “Jesus, Etc.” is clearly written by a guitarist, focused more on forming a central riff. This down-to-earth structure captures the violin in a rare light, causing the whole song to shine with it.

My Top 250 Songs Part 6 (#125-101)

125. Dead Kennedys – “Holiday in Cambodia” (1980)
from the album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables

Key lyrics:
“Don’t forget to pack a wife”

Ramones achieved their signature sound by playing rather ordinary songs twice as fast. The hardcore punk movement then came along saying that was not fast enough. There is something raw, almost animalistic that makes hardcore punk hit different than other hard genres. Where the various forms of metal typically feature complex instrumentation, most of the hardcore punk acts stick to the simple structure of punk. Everything is in the presentation.

Jello Biafra’s vocals make “Holiday in Cambodia” unlike anything else. He gives off an air of genuine insanity in his gleeful sneers. Where many hardcore performers rely on anger, Biafra makes it clear his target deserves nothing more than biting ridicule. This delivery has an unlikely effect – though both the subject matter and music are aggressive, Biafra seems to be inviting us to laugh along.

The guitar toys with surf rock, turning out one of the sickest riffs in punk. This adds to Biafra’s bitterly cynical sarcasm – the beaches of Cambodia are totally tubular, dudes. The song veers off into several instrumental breaks, all more sinister than the last. The finale descends into Biafra muttering Pol Pot over and over, reducing the dictator to a decontextualized rhythmic element. “Holiday in Cambodia” is as biting as it is fun.

124. Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti – “Falling” (1989)
from the albums Floating Into the Night and Soundtrack from Twin Peaks

Key lyrics:
“Don’t let yourself be hurt this time”

An instrumental variant of this song would be used as the iconic theme for Twin Peaks. Being that Twin Peaks is my favorite television show, I may be a tad biased – but Badalamenti’s score is such a big part of this love. Further, while I once begrudged acknowledging other media influencing my love for certain songs, I now recognize this denies music one of its major functions. More than any other medium, music has been used to accompany other works of art. The act of helping another work achieve greatness can itself be a sign of greatness. This extends beyond something as explicit as a television theme – the most iconic songs become symbols in themselves. I cannot dissociate “These Days” from Margot Tenenbaum stepping off the bus or “The End” from Apocalypse Now – nor would I want to. It’s not that Twin Peaks elevates my love for “Falling,” but that their greatness is interlinked.

Julee Cruise’s vocals transform the atmospheric grandeur into something ethereal and dreamy. The contrast between her gentle vocals and the signature bass simulate the spirit of David Lynch’s work. Julee Cruise plays an innocent girl on the verge of being crushed by the weight of the world. Whenever the instruments threaten to drown her out entirely, she resists. The song rises with her voice, the music bending to her will. This is a ray of hope in a grander body that would constantly deny its audience and characters such levity.

123. A Tribe Called Quest – “Scenario” (1991)
from the album The Low End Theory

Key lyrics:
“Rawr, rawr, like a dungeon dragon”

“Scenario” is far from a typical Tribe Called Quest production. Their other hits tend to take a lighter atmosphere, more in line with De La Soul than Wu-Tang Clan. “Scenario” is a one-off exploration of hardcore elements, but the Tribe give a convincing performance. Their sample is as simple as it is confrontational. This is the ultimate posse cut, cycling through the members and several guests from Leaders of the New School.  The minimalist production spotlights the delivery – there are moments where lines seem to exist purely to create an impossible flow. Short bursts of backing shouts add to the experience. Plenty of rap tracks emphasize vocals, but “Scenario” focuses more on the cadence than the lyrics.

Already exceptional during its first half, “Scenario” becomes an all-time classic by introducing the world at large to Busta Rhymes. The whole song seems built to encapsulate his specific strengths. His persona is aggressive yet absurd, a perfect match for this nontraditional hardcore cut. Despite its relative hard edge, “Scenario” fits perfectly alongside the other Tribe Called Quest hits through its playfulness. This track only toys with intimidation, cutting it down with bizarre exclamations. This is simply a group of young men having a whole lot of fun, resulting in an explosive party jam.

122. Kraftwerk – “Trans-Europe Express” (1977)
from the album Trans-Europe Express

Key lyrics:
“From station to station, back to Dusseldorf City
Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”

“Trans-Europe Express” chugs along just like the international railway which inspired its creation. The robotic Kraftwerk had their eye on transportation from the beginning – their first two albums feature traffic cones on the cover, while their breakthrough hit was a 23 minute epic about the Autobahn. The full album of Trans-Europe Express feels like a grand tour of the European countryside. But where album opener “Europe Endless” is pretty enough that it could have been used to advertise the now-defunct TEE, “Trans-Europe Express” kicks off side two with something sinister. While that first track simulates a peaceful trip, “Trans-Europe Express” mimics the harsh sounds of the train itself.

The vocals add to the industrial soundscape. At first, they are modified with a metallic layer. This dense production suggests a discordant harmony of metal scraping against metal. Even when the band sings without modification, there is an insistent monotony to their performance. This is cold and calculating – in other words, efficient. Through all the tense atmosphere, there is no suggestion Kraftwerk views this machinery with disdain. Grand, rising synthesizers create a monolithic entity. Viewing the future of both transportation and music as gods from the machine, Kraftwerk cast them both as awe-inspiring, in the most classical sense of both fear and wonder.

121. Jay-Z – “99 Problems” (2003)
from the album The Black Album

Key lyrics:
“If you don’t like my lyrics, you can press fast forward”

Jay-Z’s greatest hit acts as a deconstruction of his success. Built around a chorus ripped straight from Ice-T’s own “99 Problems,” Jay-Z takes a literal interpretation. Instead of focusing on the women, his gaze is focused exclusively on the problems. The chorus thus acts as needless button-pushing, of which he tackles in the first verse. Do any of his critics understand the context of his success? Misogyny may be a common problem in hip hop, but the critics ignore why those songs exist. These are celebratory songs from a group which has been given little reason to do so. Those more upbeat if problematic tracks act as a necessary catharsis. He then bitterly descends into the real problems these critics demand.

The production is an absolute masterwork. Few songs manage such inseparable synthesis between voice and instrumentation. The beat stutters and stops, helping to emphasize every single word. A few guitar chords strike at the end of every other line, continually pushing us into the next section. Through this aggressive, minimalistic beat, Jay-Z paints a grimy picture of life as a black man in America. By doing so, he actually flips the chorus on its head – a good woman might just be his one relief.

120. SOPHIE – “Immaterial” (2018)
from the album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

Key lyrics:
“I could be anything I want
Anyhow, anywhere, any place, anyone that I want”

On her first studio album, SOPHIE largely shed the hyperpop aesthetic of her earlier singles to create some truly aggressive electronic bangers. “Immaterial” feels like the one leftover from those earlier creations, and its context within such a heavy album is what finally sold me on the hyperpop sound. SOPHIE plays with the concept of gender throughout the album, with “Immaterial” as conceptually relieving as it is sonically. Where “Faceshopping” simulates a breakdown over the need to present oneself a certain way, “Immaterial” is a firm embracement of the ethereal. With this track, SOPHIE affirms that we have the power to define ourselves. The seeming frivolity of her earlier work is shattered by this clear statement – she made such unusual music because she could.

As someone with a firm understanding of their gender identity but difficulty with expression, I struggle to put into words how much this song means to me. There are so many works about transitioning and the like, but “Immaterial” embraces the nebulous. As someone whose identity is defined by a lack of clear definition, this song gave a hitherto unknown sense of validation. The bridge at the center is a blast of gender euphoria – “I don’t even have to explain, just leave me alone now.” Like any great bridge, the return to form on the other side hits with joyous new meaning. Never has a song made me feel so at peace with myself.

119. The Beatles – “A Day in the Life” (1967)
from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Key lyrics:
“I’d love to turn you on”

Despite the many iconic songs The Beatles recorded, “A Day in the Life” still feels like an easy choice for their all-time best. It feels like a culmination of so many of their ideas. Introspective verses by Lennon are split by a peppy slice of mundanity by McCartney. These sections are bridged by a rising cacophony, culminating in one of the grandest finales in popular music history and punctuated by a shocking chord that stretches for another forty seconds. More than their popular success but also due to it, the reason The Beatles remain such an important band is their ability to make a wide audience embrace the avant-garde. They rarely shoved it down our throats. Rather, their best songs contained only snippets of their experimental proclivities. These bite-sized chunks made even the harshest sounds accessible.

The orchestral segments of “A Day in the Life” could have been genuinely terrifying. McCartney’s stray verse sometimes seems out of place, but the sheer juxtaposition transforms it into some much-needed relief. Coming down from the second orchestral segment, Lennon’s final verse is lent extra weight. The lines alone mean nothing, but the grandiose presentation could bring a man to tears. By capturing the sometimes overwhelming feeling of everyday life, The Beatles made a stellar experiment that spoke to all their disparate listeners.

118. Nat King Cole – “Nature Boy” (1947)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return”

Few songs haunt me like this short tune from the late 1940s. Lyrically, this is ostensibly a wondrous tale. A chance encounter with a magical boy opens the narrator’s mind up to the beauty of love. Without the instrumentation, “Nature Boy” could have been schmaltzy – there are an endless number of songs about the power of love. A magical boy delivering the message changes little. A lush string arrangement makes it something revelatory. And instead of meeting these words with wonder alone, Nat King Cole responds with fear. “Nature Boy” captures the overwhelming sensation of realizing one’s perspective has changed – for better or worse, he will never be the same person again.

The flute lends a magical element throughout the opening. Key to the arrangement is an instrumental break as the narrator ponders the final statement. The wondrous flute disappears, replaced by a less gentle piano. The strings operate differently when played against this instrument. The lyrics suggest a fae encounter, and this break feels like the aftermath. The narrator has been abandoned in the woods, left to find his way out while puzzling over the experience. “Nature Boy” is a reminder that something of wondrous beauty can be unexpectedly terrifying in its power.

117. R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion” (1991)
from the album Out of Time

Key lyrics:
“I think I thought I saw you try”

Changing up traditional rock instrumentation can go a long way. With “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. built a song around the mandolin and acoustic guitar, creating a soft yet striking sound in an era where rock would soon be defined by a messy edge. Michael Stipe shows the gentlest arrangement can contain a passionate fury. This is a man distantly in love, too afraid to speak up, stewing in his dissatisfaction. He looks for any sign of mutual interest, but also knows any hint is his own delusion. With a harder sound, this could have been a stalker song. Instead, R.E.M. keeps it light and therefore relatable – who hasn’t longed for someone they know to be unattainable?

A unique instrument can help a song elevate a standard element. The mandolin is not doing anything particularly special in its own terms, but it helps sustain an unusual rolling motion. This helps place “Losing My Religion” in a constant state of familiar action, even as the other elements shift around. What would usually be a backing element is placed in the spotlight – the trick R.E.M. pulls off here is using a distinct sound to redirect our attention. The result is something as introspective as it is fiery, never once losing its cool.

116. OutKast – “B.O.B.” (2000)
from the album Stankonia

Key lyrics:
“The fence is too high to jump in jail
Too low to dig, I might just touch hell – hot!”

There are a handful of songs I have noted as ageless, largely due to their singular design. Songs by artists sitting just outside the mainstream, with no one taking them as influences until decades later.  “B.O.B.” is inimitable from a more enviable position, a song by a hit band pulling off something only they could do. Few artists can match the rapid delivery, and even less while maintaining their joyous energy. Their follow-up album helped fuel endless debates about who is the stronger OutKast member, but “B.O.B.” shows they work better together. Their distinct styles make the two extended verses engaging. Even 20 years later, every second of this song sounds so fresh.

Everything about this track is absolute chaos. The lyrics overstimulate, a cycle of mad references like a paranoid “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (but actually effective). Though the mere presence of rapping has a tendency to overwrite every other genre, this really is a stylistic smorgasbord. Hard dance beats propel this track, while a stellar guitar solo jettisons us out from the second verse. The finale is a celebration of this achievement, a choir chanting ‘power music electric revival.’ “B.O.B.” takes the typically dreaded list song and puts it on another level, a sonic assault of everything at the same time.

115. New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle” (1986)
from the album Brotherhood

Key lyrics:
“Every time I see you falling
I get down on my knees and pray
I’m waiting for that final moment
You say the words that I can’t say”

I have previously remarked that Bernard Sumner might have the weakest voice among all my favorite bands. “Bizarre Love Triangle” makes perfect use of his minimal range. Here, he sounds completely out of his element, an ordinary man caught up in a situation he has little control over. Many synth-pop hits have difficulty with sincerity, but his mundane stylings mitigate any potential cheesiness. This is not a diss – in the mechanical world of the synthesizer, Sumner brings a vulnerable human element. “Bizarre Love Triangle” achieves musical ecstasy without force.

Everything about this track jitters and bounces. With Sumner acting to restrain these elements, they are sweet without being sugary. To craft a perfect synth-pop hit requires a balancing act – with the default state coming in too high, the best bands counteract this by infusing certain melancholy elements. New Order are experts at this, crafting delectable dance beats that go down easy. Tracks like “Bizarre Love Triangle” are almost ephemeral. This track consists of several dense layers, but they all work in tandem to the point you might not notice the odd tricks New Order pull off. “Bizarre Love Triangle” captures the high of letting yourself get carried away by emotions which you know can only end badly.

114. The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army” (2003)
from the album Elephant

Key lyrics:
“All the words are gonna bleed from me
And I will sing no more”

Being born in 1992, I got to grow up through what might have been rock’s final mainstream hurrah. Pop rock bands achieve spotlight status now and again, but “Seven Nation Army” feels like the last hit of true guitar-driven rock and roll. This is a minimalist masterpiece, striking in its ability to make you ignore its simplicity. There are only two instruments on display here – the definitive bass riff is actually the guitar, explaining why the two sounds never coexist. This results in a simple yet effective structure. The verses are all about the pseudo-bass and Meg White’s hypnotic thump, while the instrumental interludes shift into explosive guitar solos.

This structure explains the wide appeal. “Seven Nation Army” was easy to digest in the pop sphere, but rock enthusiasts were rightfully blown away by Jack White’s godlike skills. After the early 70s, it became increasingly rare for rock songs to be built around a simple riff. To stand out, most bands had to explore more complex elements – there are only so many riffs that can stand alone, and bands like The Rolling Stones and The Kinks seemed to have milked it dry. Jack White managed to drag rock back to its simple roots while mimicking the grandiosity of arena rock. The fact this is nothing more than a guitar and drum set is truly staggering.

113. Prince – “Kiss” (1986)
from the album Parade

Key lyrics:
“You don’t have to be rich to be my girl
You don’t have to be cool to rule my world”

Only Prince could land a #1 hit by singing a piercing falsetto throughout nearly the entire length of a song. “Kiss” could almost be taken as an absurdist piece if not for the sheer artistry on display. Prince is absolutely in his element here. The instrumentation is sparse, lacking a bass entirely and thus letting his odd vocals dominate. Like David Bowie, Prince crafted his image around a gender-defying style – “Kiss” captures that idea purely through sound. He is at once exaggeratedly feminine while singing all about a woman, with rare dips into baritone showing a gruff, masculine edge. Most importantly, these extremes work in tandem to create something uniquely sexy. Prince became a sex icon by not playing to anyone’s expectations.

The funky guitar keeps things grounded. An instrumental break expertly divides the falsetto assault, but Prince only takes that as a challenge. The closing section finds Prince pushing his limits, soon erupting into what I can only describe as a shriek. Falsetto is one thing, but Prince does things with his voice here no person should be able to do. And though this should be unpleasant, the raw delivery acts as a perfect payoff. Few artists could bend the pop world to his will like Prince.

112. The Rolling Stones – “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)
from the album Beggars Banquet

Key lyrics:
“I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys?
Well, after all, it was you and me”

Of the two leading British Invasion bands, The Rolling Stones rarely experimented like The Beatles. They were happy to stick with guitar-oriented rock, and they did it well. “Sympathy for the Devil” is a fluke of sorts, a song that did not sound quite right until they tried out a few variations. They stumbled into this jazz samba sound, with bongos, congas, and a piano taking lead over traditional rock elements. Backing vocalists chant ‘woo woo’ throughout, giving an almost hypnotic appeal. These elements would never come together again in the same way within the pop sphere, marking this a truly incomparable Rolling Stones track.

Mick Jagger is an expert showman, and he plays the devil well. The lyrics rip through a dozen atrocities, only for him to put equal blame on us all. This devil is not an agent of destruction or tempter, but rather a trickster taking pleasure in our societal failings. Not leaving their rock sound completely behind, the electric guitar pops in about halfway through, giving a stray solo for the briefest of moments and only returning during the extended finale. Its sharp edge collide against the otherwise acoustic sound, yet that distinction lets the guitar almost float outside the rest of the track, giving it room to thrive. With “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones stepped outside their comfort zones but still managed to showcase their strongest elements.

111. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps” (2003)
from the album Fever to Tell

Key lyrics:
“Wait, they don’t love you like I love you”

There was a brief period in the early 2000s where I got really into music videos, in an era where MTV2 was still operating as MTV’s music-oriented spinoff station before the rise of YouTube. Few videos struck me quite like hearing “Maps” for the first time. As a ten-year-old, I could not have possibly understood the desperation underpinning this song, but Karen O crying during the video stuck with me. The lyrics are as minimal as they come outside of electronic music, but Karen O sings with such subtly affecting power. This is a woman too crushed to do anything but beg, her quiet demeanor revealing she knows too well nothing will work. After growing up and going through similar experiences, I soon recognized the truth in this song. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do but mutter soft comforts to yourself.

The instrumentation is just as essential. The droning guitar is a perfect lure, and then the drums thunder in like nothing else. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are no fragile indie band – this is a garage act taking a moment to show their vulnerable side. As the grief seemingly overwhelms Karen O, the guitar roars to life with a truly killer solo. The insistent pattern of the drums sting with the numbness of a breakup. “Maps” is an emotional tour de force, its instrumentation filling in the lyrical gaps with emotions that can hardly be expressed through words.

110. Yazoo – “Situation” (1982)
from the album Upstairs at Eric’s

Key lyrics:
“Now he’s in control, he is my lover
Nations stand against him, he’s your brother”

When I first got into Depeche Mode, it was difficult to believe the same band that made “Never Let Me Down Again” and “Enjoy the Silence” kicked off their career with exuberant pop ditty “Just Can’t Get Enough.” If I had been a bit more curious, I would have gotten into Yazoo before 2019. Songwriter Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode soon after their debut, and Upstairs at Eric’s feels like the true continuation of that early sound. This is one of those lucky splits where two great projects emerged; Yazoo might have never achieved the lasting success of Depeche Mode, but Clarke’s work there is the hidden gem of early synth-pop.

Alison Moyet is key to the project, a rare vocalist who can actually match the more energetic side of synth-pop. There is a unique quaver in her voice that heightens her delivery, casting “Situation” as an accusatory song. The lyrics suggest she has been hurt by something or someone, but she will not go down without fighting back. Monotonous backing vocals chant ‘move out’ – she is forcing a change. Clarke’s synth-line is as upbeat and catchy as they come, yet Moyet’s thunderous vocals make it sound almost restrained. Many of my favorite synth-pop acts succeeded by mitigating the seemingly intrinsic lightness of the genre through ironic lyrics or pitching downward. “Situation” is a rare example which embraces every rough edge and runs away with it, the highest form of synth-pop in the raw.

109. Caribou – “Odessa” (2010)
from the album Swim

Key lyrics:
“And I’ve been with you for all of these years
Tell you what I’ve got to show for all of my tears”

Caribou is a master of deeply meditative electronic music. “Odessa” is a somber tale of an abused woman doing the work to leave her partner. The predominant synth-line stutters and swirls, sounding almost like a pained animal. This fades out during the verses, leaving behind an almost atonal bass line. Light percussive elements join in and subtly shift throughout; when the opening synth-line returns, the percussion hops about, shifting in volume as if jumping between channels when not dipping out entirely. Even Snaith’s vocals take on a different edge between verses and chorus. “Odessa” consists of several similar yet distinct bits, expertly fused together in an ever-changing soundscape.

As Snaith hits the middle of the second verse, his voice echoes at a key line. The stuttering synth-line, which has hitherto remained separate from the vocals, fades in during this sequence and wars for the spotlight during the following chorus. Caribou weaponizes the synthesizer, operating it more like an intrusive thought than a supportive element. During the final verse, the synth-line transforms into a momentous arpeggio. With this shift, Snaith’s vocals suggest the central figure will finally take the necessary steps to leave – only for that bitter stutter to return and close out the song. By cutting off before her success, “Odessa” maintains a sense of raw determination.

108. Aphex Twin – “Windowlicker” (1999)
non-album single

There will likely never be a more controversial instrument in popular music than the synthesizer. What some artists saw as a jump into the future was loudly rejected by those who viewed it as an excessive, cold imitation of real instruments. Several artists have put in great effort to show the human side of the synthesizer, while others found comfort in the robotic future. “Windowlicker” feels like a vicious assault from every angle. There is no humanity here, nor a chromatic vision. This is a calculated nightmare, as if Aphex Twin looked to the surface-level horror of his previous single, “Come to Daddy,” and decided to show us what a real electronic monstrosity could sound like. Yet the sheer coldness proves those other bands right – the amount of effort required to strip electronic music of its soul makes every other act look human.

As such, “Windowlicker” is an exercise in unpleasantness, more a proof of concept than anything. Yet something mesmerizing exists below it seemingly impenetrable surface. The trick of being designed around unpredictable elements is that an experienced listener knows what to expect. Once you adjust to the unusual sound, “Windowlicker” becomes a singularly bizarre dance track. The final trick Aphex Twin pulls off is a reminder that even the most extreme music is rooted in the human experience.

107. The Beach Boys – “God Only Knows” (1966)
from the album Pet Sounds

Like most of The Beach Boys’ greatest hits, the complexity of “God Only Knows” is often overlooked in the popular conscious. Brian Wilson has a phenomenal talent to make dense instrumentation and odd key choices appear effortless. There are well over a dozen instruments features on this track, and they all play a key part while fusing into a cohesive Wall of Sound. You can pick out the sleigh bells and clip-clop percussion if you pay close attention, but it is just as easy to let these stray sounds meld into one. From the beginning, The Beach Boys were celebrated for their close vocal harmonies; with “God Only Knows,” they successfully applied that close arrangement to a massive soundscape.

This colossal backdrop serves to heighten the vocal performance. Carl Wilson sings alone for the first minute, but then other voices rise together during an interlude. The song then sets back into Carl alone; with how iconic “God Only Knows” is for its harmonies, its striking how much of this consists of a lone voice. The finale is just that grandiose, with Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Bruce Johnston singing in rounds, each vocalist seemingly struggling to outdo one another and get in the last word. Few popular songs have ever achieved such seamlessly intricate design.

106. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (2002)
from the album American IV: The Man Comes Around

Key lyrics:
“Everyone I know
Goes away in the end”

It has been said enough times at this point to no longer be a bold statement – the greatest song Johnny Cash ever recorded was his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” released less than a year before his death. This was not an easy achievement. Cash had already recorded three songs that could compete for the title of greatest country song ever, by any artist. And though Cash had been making cover albums for nearly a decade by this point, none of his other covers received anywhere near the same attention. The choice of Nine Inch Nails was not as shocking as it might sound, as Cash had already covered Tom Waits and Nick Cave at this point.

The simple strength of “Hurt” is how it reconstitutes the meaning of the original song. Johnny Cash takes the perspective of a suicidal young man and transforms it into the regretful tale of an old man nearing death. This is what every cover song wishes it could be, casting new meaning with the same words. It does not seek to replace or imitate but rather coexist with the original, exposing a universal element to Trent Reznor’s desperate emotions. But Cash simultaneously creates something rare, a piece by an artist all too aware of his impending death. He sings with so much emotion, his voice trembling with age. His version of “Hurt” is among the most poignant pieces of art about mortality.

105. R.E.M. – “Nightswimming” (1992)
from the album Automatic for the People

Key lyrics:
“And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?”

Hot off the success of “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. seemed at a loss over what to do next. The resulting album embraced those scattered thoughts, resulting in one of the finest records of the 1990s. Perhaps we got lucky – mainstream rock was embracing grunge at this point, and R.E.M. would soon follow that trend and never recover. Songs like “Nightswimming” painted the band as anything but scene chasers. Many of the songs off Automatic for the People tossed aside a traditional rock instrument or two, but this particular track leaves no traces of the genre. Instead, a piano leads against a string arrangement.

“Nightswimming” is a minimalist ballad, and an unbelievably pretty one at that. Though not shouting out rage like his contemporaries, Michael Stipe suitably bares all as his words hint at skinny dipping. But this is not a provocative song. Rather, Stipe is conjuring a place where the truth is overwhelmingly present. It is altogether bittersweet, a reflection on a moment of finding oneself while also realizing how much has changed in the intervening years. With such a minimal sound, Stipe reveals himself to be a true vocal powerhouse. Yet it is the piano that keeps drawing me back. It seemingly rolls over itself in an endless loop, suggesting infinite interpretations of our memories. “Nightswimming” is nostalgia in musical form.

104. The Who – “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971)
from the album Who’s Next

Key lyrics:
“Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss”

The Who were far from the first rock band to use a synthesizer, but the two big tracks off Who’s Next feel like nothing which came before. With Terry Riley referenced by the title of the first track, The Who openly shared their inspiration. They did not work the synthesizer in as just another rock instrument, but instead used it as an atmospheric backdrop. As such, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” plays two distinct parts at once. The ever-present synthesizer showcased the potential for the new instrument outside of dedicated electronic pieces, while its largely atmospheric presence allowed the more traditional rock elements to go all-out. Even with the synthesizer lightly floating about, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” goes as hard as classic rock gets.

The extended outro is the stuff of legends. The synthesizer takes lead for an extended break, all other instruments dropping out. After a chaotic six and a half minutes, this creates an unusual moment of levity. Then, Keith Moon rockets in with a phenomenal drum solo. While the synthesizer had been kept at a distance throughout, this combination reveals an unexpected versatility; the hard and soft sounds complement one another, exaggerating the other’s strength. Then, Roger Daltrey gives what just might be the most cathartic scream in all of rock history. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a genuine hard rock epic.

103. Sharon Van Etten – “Your Love is Killing Me” (2014)
from the album Are We There

Key lyrics:
“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you
Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you
Burn my skin so I can’t feel you
Stab my eyes so I can’t see”

There is something colossal about the slowly thundering drums that open “Your Love is Killing Me.” For Sharon Van Etten, nothing less than an earthshattering rumble could do justice to the toxic relationship that inspired this track. The lyrics during the chorus are just as extreme. She lists off several methods of self-harm she would be willing to take just to silence her misplaced love. Among a sea of violent break-up songs, “Your Love is Killing Me” holds a visceral edge by taking the language of threats and turning it inward. This is a woman driven so far to the breaking point that she would sooner hurt herself than give her lover permission to do any more harm.

Her vocals do justice to the torment within every line. The way she cuts short the phrase “stab my eyes so I can’t see” just to stretch out that final word, to emphasize the harm while erasing his presence, is riveting. Even worse is when she modifies the third chorus, twisting that phrase to suggest she will now blind herself to his harm instead. Few songs have so perfectly summarized the dangerously intoxicating nature of love. After absolutely eviscerating this man, she admits an urge to stay simply to avoid the pain of being without love. Few artists have reduced themselves to such a vulnerable state, yet Sharon Van Etten shows just as much strength through her powerful performance – though the lyrics reveal no clear ending, we can tell she escaped.

102. FKA twigs – “Cellophane” (2019)
from the album Magdalene

Key lyrics:
“All wrapped in cellophane, the feelings that we had”

A true sense of vulnerability is difficult to achieve. Lyrics alone are rarely enough. There needs to be something raw in the performance to truly strike at our hearts. FKA twigs has spent most of her career crafting complex soundscapes and modifying her voice, but she stripped that all away for “Cellophane.” Much of the track is supported by nothing but a slow, distorted piano. As she reflects on a relationship, she can do little more than ask why she was never good enough. It’s the type of torment anyone who has been broken up with can understand. The following lines then get a little more personal, noting the unwanted attention she received in the spotlight. Her words paint a cruel picture of a relationship torn apart by outside pressure.

FKA twigs’ voice is as delicate as glass. It is fitting that, at the exact halfway mark as she drops the title of the track, a short burst of electronics rises and shatters around her. The instrumentation subtly begins to creak and groan during the final minute, yet her voice remains centered. She offers no relief as she closes the song with a wispy lament. “Cellophane” is a raw piano ballad, its singular burst of energy enough to help sustain FKA twigs’ incomparable grief.

101. Curtis Mayfield – “Move On Up” (1970)
from the album Curtis

Key lyrics:
“Take nothing less
Than the supreme best”

Few songs rocket immediately into life like Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” Frantic conga drums kick things off, keeping up an inimitable energy throughout. The percussion alone would be enough to make this a classic. What the horns lack in insistent energy is made up for in optimistic blasts. While Mayfield sings, the horns chime in like enthusiastic punctuation. Between the verses, the horns get increasingly wild. Through the lyrics, Mayfield promises a better life is possible. In a hectic world, “Move On Up” asks us to take a deep breath and recognize the positive changes. It is a celebration of what could be.

In an unusual move for popular music, the full version of “Move On Up” closes out with an extended instrumental section. Mayfield recognized the sheer velocity of the instrumentation and lets it run itself out. Nine minutes of this could seem excessive, but this is nine minutes of reassurance and bliss. This is a bright and shiny vision of a better tomorrow, so joyous it can make you forget fifty years have passed without much changing. But even if that better world never arrives, it is music like “Move On Up” that helps us carry on with heads held high.

My Top 250 Songs Part 5 (#150-126)

150. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games” (2011)
from the album Born to Die

Key lyrics:
“He holds me in his big arms,
Drunk and I am seeing stars
This is all I think of”

A couple years before Lorde took melancholy pop mainstream, Lana Del Rey was already crooning from her preemptive deathbed. It’s not that “Video Games” has particularly depressing subject matter, but rather that Lana Del Rey sings with a fatalistic edge. The mundane themes of ordinary love are cast against bombastic instrumentation – there is no explicit acknowledgement that this relationship has ended, but everything about the production informs this perspective. Lana Del Rey successfully casts herself as a star, using “Video Games” as a melancholy nostalgia piece on the life she has given up to achieve that fame. And she found the perfect modern Rosebud, longing for something as simple as watching her lover play video games.

The production is mesmerizing and lush. A string section plays this up as something grandiose; such themes could have easily been taken as sentimental, but the song instead captures the wonders of ordinary life. A snare drum helps the song subtly rumble into and out from the chorus. The second chorus adds a louder pulse; these contrasting elements sell the sense of loss. Everything adds up to a perfect pop showstopper. Though Lana Del Rey had several fumbles in the immediate aftermath of this release, “Video Games” was so singularly impressive as to guarantee an attentive audience through every mistake.

149. Nico – “These Days” (1967)
from the album Chelsea Girl

Key lyrics:
“Please don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them”

Underpinning the simple beauty of “These Days” is a complex mess of production issues; the success here feels like a fluke. Nico’s career as a musician seems to have come about through Andy Warhol’s insistence, first forcing her into The Velvet Underground before this solo work. Her low voice and thick accent, while affecting in its own right, has a niche appeal that likely would have floundered without Warhol backing her every step. Even this song does not belong to her alone, being written by Jackson Browne at age 16 and having him play guitar on the recording. To add another complexity, the string arrangement that feels so essential was snuck onto the record by the producer, Tom Wilson.

Though credited alone, Nico was clearly denied creative control over this track. Nevertheless, everything comes together to emphasize her unique qualities. The intense melancholy of her voice is emphasized by the strings, while Browne’s fingerpicking adds just enough air – this is not a depressive track but a reflective one. That sense of reflection works wonders with her voice; though her work with The Velvet Underground only seemed to work due to the intentional messiness of their debut, “These Days” allowed Nico to play in her own element. This track proves that even a rough voice can be made beautiful with precise production.

148. Justice – “D.A.N.C.E.” (2007)
from the album Cross

Following in the footsteps of Daft Punk’s Discovery album, Justice laid out a perfect house hit by openly paying homage to a childhood influence. “D.A.N.C.E.” is a giant, loving tribute to Michael Jackson, the lyrics quoting several lines from his songs. To channel the spirit of a young Michael Jackson, Justice brought in a children’s choir to do the vocals. The song shifts back and forth between chaotic pileups and solo lines – but even those lone deliveries are made larger than life. “Do the dance” is repeated over and over, sometimes decaying into a stuttering echo. Few songs have made child singers sound so cool.

Throughout, “D.A.N.C.E.” is a production marvel. The song opens with static interference, and the shift to perfect clarity hits like a bomb. While “D.A.N.C.E.” consists of a lot of familiar, repetitive elements, Justice mixes them together into unique combinations throughout. The most stunning section comes just after the two and a half minute mark, most of the instruments dropping out aside from the piano. The groovy bassline then returns to pull the song back to its full force, only for the song to shift into a bubbly outro. “D.A.N.C.E.” is a rare house hit that refuses to settle into a comfortable groove.

147. Daft Punk – “One More Time” (2000)
from the album Discovery

Key lyrics:
“We don’t stop
You can’t stop”

Daft Punk’s Discovery album is a celebration of the disco era, cheese and all, and “One More Time” is the track that sets everything into motion. And this particular track truly is a celebration, its central sound so bright and cheery it would be cloying if not for a sense of raw exuberance. The band makes great use of auto-tune, intentionally modulating guest vocalist Romanthony’s part to find a perfect balance between man and machine. The crackle of his delivery add a funky quality most bands only achieve with multiple vocalists.

Just as the central loop risks wearing thin, the track shifts gear. Everything but the drums and vocals are seemingly dragged underwater – and then the beat drops out, too. Romanthony’s vocals turn downright soulful, emphasized by the minimal sonic backdrop. A tambourine arrives in the middle of this extended break, suggesting the party might soon return before being silenced twenty seconds later. Daft Punk are milking this bridge for all its worth. After nearly two minutes of muted instrumentation, the electronic horns slowly rise back up, a truly glorious transition back to the beginning. Through this arrangement, Daft Punk morph the familiar starting point into a spine-tingling payoff – this party could go on forever.

146. Underworld – “Born Slippy .NUXX” (1995)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“She smiled at you boy”

“Born Slippy .NUXX” turns repetition into hypnosis. No matter the context, every short phrase Karl Hyde speaks in the first three minutes is punctuated by the word ‘boy.’ This rambling performance suggests something like being commanded by a drunken stranger – his meaning is hard to discern, but you are certain he’s addressing you specifically. This uneasy, slimy feeling lingers across the full ten minutes, even as the vocals drop out and the song goes full trance. “Born Slippy” is a furious minimalist piece with the scale of a progressive epic. It is the sonic equivalent of meeting a new friend at a skeevy bar, only to have your arm unexpectedly stick to the leather as you reach up for a handshake.

The mesmerizing element is how stripped down this becomes while maintaining a distinct identity. By the time it reaches the back half, “Born Slippy” descends into extended segments consisting of nothing more than the beat. But like any techno great, the song dithers about with several stray elements, all made cohesive by their consistently disparate nature. This is a full musical odyssey, chained together by an insistent beat. Though little of it sounds pleasant in any traditional sense, the demanding opening and frenetic repetition always leave me hooked.

145. Stardust – “Music Sounds Better With You” (1998)
non-album single

If we were to judge bands based on the average quality of their music, Stardust would probably take the top spot. “Music Sounds Better With You” was the only song recorded under this name, but it stands as an all-time great house track. Its place in the electronic music canon makes better sense once you look at the individual members, which includes one half of Daft Punk. This operates as a bridge between the first two Daft Punk albums, lightening the atmosphere from Homework while maintaining its insistent structure. The production veers close to pop territory, but steady vocal loops confirm the house roots.

More than anything, “Music Sounds Better With You” feels like a key step in electronic music shedding its sometimes cold exterior. There is nothing robotic about this track. Benjamin Diamond’s vocals are sensual, while the central guitar hook is classic disco. This showcased what electronic music could do in the pop sphere, all while maintaining a singular focus on the dancefloor. While the song occasionally dips into distinct segments, it is happy to linger on its central hook. Simply put, Stardust stumbled across a perfect ten seconds of music and decided to let it soar. With something this strong, who needs more?

144. The Orb – “Little Fluffy Clouds” (1990)
from the album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

Key lyrics:
“And the clouds would catch the colors everywhere
That’s neat, cause I used to look at them all the time when I was little
You don’t see that”

With “Little Fluffy Clouds,” The Orb found a unique method of creating a simple pleasure. The entire track is built around sampling a Rickie Lee Jones interview. She sounds blazed out of her mind while ranting about clouds, and The Orb go all in on simulating her apparent bliss. Much like actual clouds, “Little Fluffy Clouds” feels gigantic while lacking density. This is not a bad thing. As an ambient house track, “Little Fluffy Clouds” is built to return the energy you put in. The dance elements are just subtle enough that one can easily zone out and take it in without any effort.

The Orb achieve this by mixing spacey synthesizers with a simple yet effective beat. The persistence of the Rickie Lee Jones sampling assists both elements. As the synths bubble into the stratosphere, Jones feels right there with them, absolutely amazed by the experience. She is made an unwitting tour guide, almost sounding regal with this production. Simultaneously, The Orb chop her words up, reducing her to a skittering stutter which occasionally forms part of the beat. The whole track is an exercise in how non-musical samples can be recontextualized into something magnificent. “Little Fluffy Clouds” is a blast of silliness that lingers long after the novelty should have worn off, all thanks to its stellar production.

143. Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit” (1967)
from the album Surrealistic Pillow

Key lyrics:
“Go ask Alice”

While plenty of songs from the 1960s toyed with drug references, few have felt as lasting as “White Rabbit.” With this song, Grace Slick forever linked Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel with hippie culture. The lyrics are a loving homage from someone who manufactured an unintended message.

Yet the subject matter is only a minor part of what makes “White Rabbit” a true classic of psychedelic rock. The structure here is something few artists seem to even consider attempting. The song begins with a steady marching rhythm. There is no chorus or real hook. Each verse simply rises into the next, the drumbeat forever suggesting the song is only taking off. It is not until we reach the final lines that the song truly shifts gears, but then it is over. “White Rabbit” simply builds tension over its two and a half minutes, all towards one short burst. This moment is cathartic, but it can also leave one wanting for more. Taken as a whole, the song feels like an intro to a larger piece that does not exist. This could have been a frustrating experience, but this design makes “White Rabbit” feel like few others. The entire song operates as one gigantic crescendo.

142. Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On” (1971)
from the album What’s Going On

Key lyrics:
“Don’t punish me
With brutality”

In an era defined by protest songs, “What’s Going On” stands out by turning more to weariness than anger. While plenty of others preached peace, love, and understanding, Marvin Gaye frames it with the right amount of introspection. He knows this will not be an easy path – but it is also the only real path to a better tomorrow. The sound remains downcast as Marvin Gaye pleas for people to listen. He directly addresses the audience through familial term; ‘mother,’ ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ ‘father’ begin the verses and punctuate the chorus. To truly achieve change, Gaye knew everyone needed to play a part.

The production on “What’s Going On” signaled a new direction for soul music. The song starts with a chattering crowd, immediately suggesting an inner city atmosphere. The slower, melancholy tone was densely packed – the emphasis was no longer on vocals but a complex soundscape. But that’s not to say Marvin Gaye failed to deliver an era-defining performance. Inspired by a studio accident, he decided to layer his vocals, allowing key moments to split in two beautiful directions. The combination of this with the chatter and backing vocals creates a truly communal experience – to tackle all these issues in one breath, Gaye crafted an all-encompassing sound.

141. Elbow – “One Day Like This” (2008)
from the album The Seldom Seen Kid

Key lyrics:
“Throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right”

It is easy to trace the origins of “One Day Like This.” In many ways, Elbow come off as the less popular twin of Coldplay. Meaning, both bands clearly take after the lighter songs by Radiohead circa The Bends. With Radiohead quickly drifting toward the experimental, this is a rare case where shameless imitation is respectable. Elbow and Coldplay offer a window into what could have been if Radiohead stuck with this light alternative sound. “One Day Like This” is a rare example where I actually prefer the imitation – Elbow spent years mastering this style, and this particular track carries an astronomical weight.

When someone refers to a rock song as ‘epic,’ certain concepts come to mind. Almost certainly, there has to be a scene stealing guitar solo somewhere. “One Day Like This” is an epic in its own distinct way. It comes off almost like a progressive wedding song. The definitive element is a soaring string section, ebbing and flowing throughout the first half before erupting into that colossal finale. Guy Garvey’s voice captures a sense of elation as he remarks upon a most wondrous day. Though the lyrics threatens the obvious fact that such moments are rare, Elbow absolutely live in this serenity. The outro takes up the entire back half of the song, a dozen voices singing in harmony. Without a trace of sentimentality, “One Day Like This” manages to create an overwhelmingly joyful atmosphere.

140. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream” (2011)
from the album James Blake

Key lyrics:
“I’m falling, falling, falling, falling
Might as well fall in”

The impact of a song can change immensely depending on the context in which it is heard. I knew “The Wilhelm Scream” for several months before it fully clicked. I liked it just enough to put it at the end of a mix CD which I kept in my car for the rare trip. I was returning from visiting my first boyfriend when this song came on in the dark of night on an empty highway. Few experiences in my life have ever felt so revelatory. The dense, pulsing layers never came through properly on my tinny laptop speakers – this experience was enough to push me towards investing in a better sound system.

“The Wilhelm Scream” is an isolating experience. James Blake frantically repeats the same phrases, modifying a key word here and there. The music keeps building, as if trying to drown him out. There is not much complexity to any individual element, but the way they intersect and override each other is mesmerizing. James Blake does his dense production justice, belting out his part with so much soul – his impact not just on electronic music but contemporary R&B starts here. Like “Archangel” before it, “The Wilhelm Scream” fills a dense atmosphere with enough humanity to strike with unexpected resonance.

139. ANOHNI – “Drone Bomb Me” (2016)
from the album HOPELESSNESS

Key lyrics:
“Let me be the first
I’m not so innocent”

On several songs, ANOHNI has toyed with the idea of playing a willing victim. The obvious route while writing a protest song is to remark upon the harm done and beg for change. ANOHNI instead drops into the heart of the matter. On “Drone Bomb Me,” she plays a Middle Eastern girl begging to be taken with her parents during a bomb strike. The complexity around the issue is intentionally reduced, the song instead playing exclusively within this dark fantasy. Gory details are replaced with fantastic imagery. It is a portrait of absolute devastation forced into a palatable state.

The synthesizer glimmers and sparkles. A strong drumbeat suggests this to be a dance song. ANOHNI sings with so much hope in her voice that it masks the bitter irony. On a sonic level, this is a flawless piece of electronic art pop, with every other line written to call upon stock love song phrases. It borders on sinister, how easily this can blend in with similar songs. The listener is asked to analyze the lyrics to get at the vehement rage at its heart. ANOHNI aims to repulse us through the glossy presentation and thus question why we allow our news media to do the same.

138. Kate Bush – “Hounds of Love” (1985)
from the album Hounds of Love

Key lyrics:
“I found a fox, caught by dogs
He let me take him in my hands
His little heart, it beat so fast
And I’m ashamed of running away”

“Hounds of Love” is a deceptive slice of art pop. With propulsive drums, a forceful cello, and the hum of a synthesizer, Kate Bush suggests something massive. It is easy to overlook that there is not much more to it, other than her voice. Having always had an ear for a classical sound, Kate Bush managed to craft a maximalist atmosphere out of a minimal arrangement. This is assisted by her always distinct vocal style. In addition to her usual singing, she layers herself for the backing vocals, which evolves into something akin to barking at key moments. In true art pop fashion, all of these elements add up to something both immediately accessible yet completely distinct from anything else.

The raw passion in Kate Bush’s voice is phenomenal. Her first lines carry a frantic edge, only to soften up and grow quieter as she first remarks upon the hounds of love. This shift suggests a haunted feeling, as though she is afraid to speak up. Her frantic energy bubbles up again during the chorus, reaching a high as she rolls through the word ‘throw.’ This energy takes on a reflective quality during verse two, as she describes an encounter with a fox. As the chorus returns, a subtle shift creates a hopeful atmosphere – ‘someone’ becomes ‘darling.’ The idea of falling in love can be terrifying from a distance, but Kate Bush finds comfort in the actual act.

137. Björk – “Bachelorette” (1997)
from the album Homogenic

Key lyrics:
“I’m a fountain of blood
In the shape of a girl”

In the first line of “Bachelorette,” Björk declares herself a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl. This opening line is loaded with metaphorical meaning and visceral imagery, the weight of which a lesser song might collapse under. Instead, it sets the stage beautifully for the tense experience that follows. A train-like beat establishes a sense of motion contradicted by the strings and Björk’s tendency to draw out each line. Where I described “Joga” as the atmospheric backing track for a climactic romance scene, “Bachelorette” feels like a genuine showstopper. Björk belts out her lines with the articulation of a stage performer; she wants you to hear each and every one of these desperate pleas.

Pop rarely sounds this intimidating, art pop or otherwise. Björk is a woman on a warpath, never outright threatening but instead warning of dire consequences for any betrayal. The lyrics maintain an evocative quality throughout, matching the density of that opening line. And though each verse begins by casting her in an inhuman role, they mask a very human sense of hurt. During the second verse, she is a path of cinders – something which can do real harm but also exists only to be stepped on. Through this intense mix of lyricism and instrumentation, Björk breaks love down to an ugly core.

136. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs – “Matador” (1993)
from the album Vasos Vacíos

“Matador” exists at an intersection between modern and traditional forms of music. At its heart, this could be referred to as ska, but the Latin influences run so deep that this defies simple categorization. The prominent use of candombe drums add another layer. And though candombe would be considered a traditional genre, the combination with modern rock feels almost too perfect. Ska has always been a confrontational genre, but it has never felt more commanding than while paired with these drums. This massive rhythm section combined with the shouts gives a communal quality, like the band is leading a street parade.

With most ska acts, the percussion tends toward peppy rhythms. This typically results in a laidback atmosphere, one that sometimes rubs me as disingenuously upbeat. By dropping that aspect entirely, the horn section which serves as the other pillar of ska takes on an entirely different form. In “Matador,” the horns suggest building tension. Perhaps this is not a street parade but a riot. Even without knowing the language, “Matador” is a deeply evocative title. The atmosphere suggests not just a bullfighter but a warrior. With the political context of the actual lyrics, this is a marching song demanding its listeners come out fighting.

135. Bob Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)
from the album Highway 61 Revisited

Key lyrics:
“How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”

“Like a Rolling Stone” has solidified its place in the upper echelons of popular music for good reason. When Bob Dylan picked up the electric guitar, the world of folk music changed forever. Folk was among the last popular bastions for acoustic guitar, and this song proved an existential threat – with a rising star like Bob Dylan going electric, what future would the genre have? Bob Dylan took rock music and made his own distinct blend of the two, maintaining his lyrical excellence while expanding his sound. This is one of those revolutions that became so ubiquitous that any idea of controversy is likely lost on my generation. But long before Rolling Stone magazine declared this the greatest song of all time, Bob Dylan was booed during the first live performance.

For this to successfully spawn folk rock as a popular genre, the song itself had to be excellent. Beyond the electric guitar, the instrumentation is top of the line – the Hammond organ and harmonica are just as key to establishing the distinct sound. The lyrics are strong, including one of the greatest choruses ever written. With all the high praise, people seem to overlook just how catty Bob Dylan is being on a lot of his best hits. “Like a Rolling Stone” absolutely eviscerates an unnamed woman. Imagine annoying an artist so much that he commits musical sacrilege to help kick-start a new genre just to diss you.

134. Billie Holiday – “Strange Fruit” (1939)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”

This is a rare song where I specifically remember my first listen. My high school history teacher began a class by playing “Strange Fruit.” I do not believe any other hour of my high school experience was so quiet – Billie Holiday sings with enough power to shut a bunch of white kids up real quick. The rest of that class was a grotesque necessity – it says a lot about this song that it has haunted me as much as the horrid postcards we were made to observe. Certain people would do anything to erase that history, but works like this ensure it remains in the popular conscious. “Strange Fruit” is a prime example of why art should be political.

You can find several versions of this song. No matter which you choose, the impact remains the same. All it needs is Billie Holiday’s stunning vocals and those gut-wrenching lyrics. The words paint a visceral image of the American South, speaking of hanging bodies like common fruit. Like dozens of holocaust films, “Strange Fruit” is a reason I shy away from the term ‘favorite.’ This song crawls beneath my skin. Art can be fun, even an escape, but it is the lasting impact that makes something truly stick. “Strange Fruit” is a strikingly unpleasant experience, and it is so very important that it exists.

133. Robyn – “Dancing On My Own” (2010)
from the album Body Talk

Key lyrics:
“I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her
I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?”

Club songs are typically designed to be upbeat – who wants to go out dancing and be sad about it? At the same time, the actual process of using a club to meet people can be a typically disappointing affair. Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” captures that mixed experience. The music is pounding, a perfect dance track, yet Robyn finds herself watching an ex with a new lover. Like rubbernecking, she can’t look away, no matter how much it hurts. In an act of sad defiance, she ends each chorus by dancing alone – she can get through this, but boy is it tough.

The synthesizer on this track throbs – the flurry of notes are contradicted by their repetition. The bridge is key to the experience. Though the surrounding pieces are much the same, the bridge itself drops out much of the instrumentation to emphasize Robyn’s sadness. When the drums break her free from this momentary despair, the song takes on a new form. Her distant brooding starts to read as self-love. Her idle watching which first read as self-destructive feels like a necessary act – seeing this ex with someone new is key to moving on. Until she finds someone new, she can find solace in dancing alone. “Dancing On My Own” creates the perfect atmosphere for breaking out of those lonely moods.

132. Bright Eyes – “First Day of My Life” (2005)
from the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

Key lyrics:
“I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you”

Writing a sincere love song without a hint of sentimentality is difficult to achieve. With “First Day of My Life,” Bright Eyes hits the right note by starting at a downward angle. The opening lines suggest a man walking outside to blow off steam after a fight, only to realize the strength of his feelings while alone. This messy side shows Bright Eyes is not placing love on some magical pedestal. Minor disagreements can explode into more, and this song hones in on that fragile feeling that you might be about to lose everything. “First Day of My Life” reflects on love, not through rose-colored glasses but with perfect clarity.

The most intense declaration is framed as an old quote from the partner. Through this distance, Conor Oberst drains any sentimentality by making it an observation. Presented directly from a singer, these lines would read as an overstatement – as something a lover might say to another, it reads as perfectly authentic. Adding to the authenticity is how the song largely avoids metaphors. One comes in during the final chorus, but Oberst turns the trope on its head. Love is a paycheck. This almost feels reductionist; where most songwriters rely on flowery language, Oberst uses something mechanical. But he is aiming for a higher truth: love requires constant effort or else it ends. “First Day of My Life” suggests the true beauty of love is in its mundanity.

131. Bob Dylan – “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975)
from the album Blood on the Tracks

Key lyrics:
“We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view”

Whether discussing the current political climate or simply tearing into an old friend who slighted him, Bob Dylan goes all in with his lyrics. His voice may be harsh, but his odd inflections help articulate his dense writing. “Tangled Up in Blue” feels like his most monumental achievement. Though it is far from his longest song, the lyrics suggest grand swaths of time while being littered with classical references. This is a man giving a full tour of his love life, grit and all. The amount of detail alone is astounding; the fact he manages this while maintaining a complex rhyme scheme is truly breathtaking.

The ambling guitar perfectly matches Bob Dylan’s unusual cadence. The verses stick to a strict structure, but the instrumentation subtly grows denser with each repetition. This growing sound is matched by his delivery as he begins to draw out certain words. This is one of the ultimate Bob Dylan songs because it is so clearly written for his voice. No one can do “Tangled Up in Blue” better, as it so clearly comes from a specific person. Just to confirm this, the song naturally ends with a sudden harmonica solo. Bob Dylan is a man of many talents, but lyrical storytelling is his most impressive, with “Tangled Up in Blue” serving as a perfect showcase.

130. Miles Davis – “So What” (1959)
from the album Kind of Blue

“So What” begins with a perfect build-up. The song starts quiet, with just a piano and bass. The central riff ambles about, punctuated by two louder notes. This instrumental call and response is essential to the track. The other instruments slowly join in during the response, the song growing louder with each addition. After a minute and a half, the song enters a smoother section. Throughout, the band suggests something to be growing, yet the expansive sound is also soothing. After a flurry of solos, the song ends by circling back to the beginning. Two notes have rarely held such power.

For me, the strength of jazz is its ability to generate specific moods purely through instrumentation. “So What” places me in a mode of active thinking. Those two notes are an interruption, making it impossible to settle into the groove even once they fade away. This should be easy listening, but the opening trains its audience to anticipate sudden change. Though played at a moderate tempo, the combined effect is something busy. The return of those two notes immediately ends the tension, helping kick off a strong outro. Miles Davis has tons of technical greats, but “So What” is his rare piece with pop appeal.

129. Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Dogg – “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)
from the album The Chronic

Key lyrics:
“You never been on a ride like this befo’
With a producer who can rap and control the micstro”

Obviously, hardcore hip hop was already well-established by the time Dr. Dre released The Chronic – Dre himself had been a member of N.W.A. Despite the quality of those earlier records, there was a decidedly niche element limiting their appeal. This particular subgenre is designed with a certain audience in mind, and those involved had no reason to consider outsiders. But something about “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” had an undeniable mainstream appeal, stopped just short of hitting #1 on the Billboard charts when the only rap songs to reach those heights were largely novelties like “Ice Ice Baby” and “Baby Got Back.”

There are a few obvious elements to this success. Foremost is Dr. Dre’s sampling, notably from a 1970s Leon Haywood track. The original song is rather mundane and light, but Dr. Dre snips out just the right portion and amplifies it into something extraordinary. The best sampling recontextualizes the original recording, and this sample is turned into something striking and cool. Then there’s Snoop Dogg, who has a decidedly chill delivery. In a genre dominated by aggression, Snoop Dogg asked everyone to relax and take it easy for a moment. “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” dropped much of the typical gangster rap subject matter, operating as a perfect party jam. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg achieve mainstream accessibility while maintaining an undeniably cool atmosphere, establishing a template many rappers would follow.

128. Joni Mitchell – “A Case of You” (1971)
from the album Blue

Key lyrics:
“Part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time”

It takes a special skill to make such a touching minimalist track. Joni Mitchell is accompanied by nothing but a dulcimer and acoustic guitar. This minimal arrangement puts her voice in the spotlight, and does she ever run away with it. Words are drawn out to a breaking point, moments of heightened emotion find her voice growing ever higher. Her voice quavers with vulnerability, singing with utmost sincerity. Though the piece might be simple, few can sing quite like Joni.

“A Case of You” stands apart from other love songs due to its angle. The very first line sets its subject matter in the past – but this is not a breakup song. Rather, this is a lovingly nostalgic reflection on a relationship that could not last. Moments like this are exceedingly rare. To be able to look at a past romance not with hate or sadness but a simple acknowledgment of its foundational effect captures a flurry of emotions. This is sad and happy in the same breath. The lyrics are exceptional, starting with Joni cutting down one of his grandiose phrases before turning herself to metaphor. She casts him as being in her blood, too familiar to carry any more impact yet an essential part of her existence. “A Case of You” captures a bittersweet emotion some might never get a chance to experience otherwise.

127. The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go” (1964)
from the album Where Did Our Love Go

Right before the British Invasion really took off, popular music in the 1960s seemed headed in a very different direction. This was the age of the girl group, bands of young women singing in close harmony supported by some of the best songwriters and producers of the era. Most of the lasting megahits from this era have a celebratory or high energy atmosphere. “Where Did Our Love Go,” on the other hand, is surprisingly mellow. Diana Ross leads with the gentlest vocals imaginable, even while singing about a failed relationship. The foot stomping percussion lends a dynamic element to an otherwise simple beat. The backing vocals exist at a distance, coming off as echoes of Ross’s sentiments.

Other than a brief saxophone solo right in the middle, there is not much variance to this short track. This simplicity works to establish “Where Did Our Love Go” as a purely emotive piece. Diana Ross plays a woman stunned by the sudden end of a relationship, rambling lyrics suggesting a total loss for words. This is soul music in a distilled form. Sometimes emotions are too extreme for words, and The Supremes capture so much longing and ghostly despair despite the surface level pleasantness.

126. Big Thief – “Not” (2019)
from the album Two Hands

Key lyrics:
“It’s not the hunger revealing
Nor the ricochet in the cave”

The lyrics of “Not” cut deep in a way I have rarely encountered. Off the top of my head, the only song that compares is Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire.” Both have an insistent structure. But where “Who By Fire” is simply listing off the many ways to die, “Not” remains nebulous in its meaning. What does it mean to describe something only through negation? We are given everything ‘it’ is not without a clear hint of the actual subject matter. The experience is legitimately upsetting. Adrianne Lenker’s vocals are oozing with devastation, but the lack of solid details warps our ability to empathize. We are asked to understand emotion without context.

By the third verse, Lenker delivers some of the rawest vocals indie rock has ever seen. The way she tears through the phrase “it’s not the hunger revealing” is revelatory. The final chorus is practically shouted, the emotions too overwhelming. And then words finally lose all impact. In a song about the inability to express emotions verbally, Big Thief expertly decide to drop the vocals entirely. They are replaced by a nearly three minute guitar solo. In an era where guitar has seen less emphasis, Big Thief show the power of an expertly timed solo. This is an all-time great, morphing the energy of the vocals into an extended, explosive finale. “Not” is made up familiar pieces – the poignant lyricism of folk, the grunge aesthetic, and an electrifying classic rock closer. But by being so many things at once, it’s not anything but itself.

My Top 250 Songs Part 4 (#175-151)

175. The Knife – “Silent Shout” (2006)
from the album Silent Shout

Key lyrics:
“In a dream I lost my teeth again
Calling me woman and a half man
Yes in a dream all my teeth fell out
A cracked smile and a silent shout”

House is a genre that I tend to associate with, if not warmth, at least relative frivolity. This is a genre made for clubs, places to escape from the stress of everyday life. “Silent Shout” feels like an intentional antithesis, featuring all the driving synthesizer you could want but cast from the darkest pits of human torment. This is not a song for raves but the horrid aftermath, like stumbling through the darkest woods from unknown assailants while coming down from a bad trip. “Silent Shout” is horror as music.

The percussion is demanding, forceful, its repetitive beat a haunting presence throughout the track. Karin Dreijer layers their voice atop itself, one a low register suggesting something demonic while the others retain a human quality. The lyrics are a trip themselves, a surrealist nightmare of finding oneself incapable of speaking. Through the dark sound, a sadder truth forms – this is a song of the oppressed and forgotten, too unsightly to garner proper attention. More than an atmospheric piece alone, this is a house track at heart, and a glorious one at that. The synthesizer soars, finding new ways to build on top of itself. Where most other tracks I would describe as ‘horror’ tend to be complex and intentionally off-putting, “Silent Shout” finds a perfect balance between outright creepiness and accessibility.

174. Hot Chip – “Over and Over” (2006)
from the album The Warning

Key lyrics:
“Like a monkey with a miniature symbol
The joy of repetition really is in you”

Hot Chip’s “Over and Over” is an ode to the repetition that makes most dance music work, first casting itself among them before carving its own chaotic path. It’s not that “Over and Over” goes off the rails. Rather, it achieves a level of extravagance by using its basic structure as a launching point. The “Kissing Sexing” segment brings the song to a stomping halt, which explodes into a stunning guitar solo ramping the song up to an aggressive level. There are distinct segments, yet they flow so perfectly together.

Getting that chaotic breakdown to work first requires luring the listener in, and “Over and Over” starts as a bona fide mid-2000s indietronica jam. Hot Chip is essentially LCD Soundsystem’s more dance-oriented British cousin, similar but satisfying a different itch. The complexity is not in their lyrics but strewn across the instrumentation, stray details and small hooks making brief appearances to keep things exciting. The “Kissing Sexing” segment hits like a brick, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard’s typically beautiful vocals reduced to a robotic chant. More, each word they spell has one less letter, leaving an additional empty beat between each line that feels just off in the best way. This is a song that subverts itself over and over, an addictive experience simply asking you to have fun with it.

173. Depeche Mode – “Never Let Me Down Again” (1987)
from the album Music for the Masses

Key lyrics:
“I’m taking a ride with my best friend
I hope he never lets me down again”

Few synth-pop bands maintain such a brooding atmosphere as Depeche Mode, and their best songs rarely clue the listener in. This ambiguity creates an ominous atmosphere throughout “Never Let Me Down Again,” which could be about a flighty friend but might also focus on drug addiction. The lack of certainty is the point, the song contrasting the two experiences. Whatever the case, the music captures a sense of desperation.

“Never Let Me Down Again” catches my attention from its brief opening, an oscillating pair of notes growing fuller with every cycle. Duality is a key element to the song structure. The chorus is a subtle harmony, emphasizing the plural lyrics as one voice gets lost inside the other. A variation on the opening riff pops in between certain phrases, creating a subtly anxious rift. Despite this dense atmosphere, they maintain a firmly danceable beat.

The song reaches a heavenly high during the bridge, Dave Gahan begging to never be let down as the music carries him far above the earth. It’s the perfect payoff for such a nervously confrontational song. The narrator is finally putting his trust in this friend while the other voice promises a beautiful night. The song ends there, letting us ponder whether the friend remains present on the way down.

172. Slint – “Good Morning Captain” (1991)
from the album Spiderland

Key lyrics:
“I miss you”

Slint’s Spiderland is one of the original “post-rock” records, a poorly named genre which uses standard rock instruments in unusual ways. Though bands like Sigur Ros and Swans seem to have little in common on the surface, they are united by a borderline ambient usage of guitars. Whether being used for horror or serenity, the best post-rock songs are atmospheric slow-burners. “Good Morning Captain” captures the dark potential of the genre, guided by anxious strumming always teetering on the edge of relief. Slint deny us any easy payoff. Coming from a hardcore background, Slint play in a style that suggests an incoming burst of aggression. Instead, the familiar buildup cycles back on itself in a seemingly endless loop. Music is rarely this stress-inducing.

What I find so masterful about this song is that it occasionally roars, all while maintaining its ambience. As the guitars prepare to take off, the spoken word vocals pulls it back – the words here matter less than the delivery, which borders on inaudible below the instruments. “Good Morning Captain” is an expertly mixed track, the quieter elements keeping everything else subdued. This is all in service of one of the greatest payoffs in rock, a blistering shout allowing the flood of tension to be released.

171. The Velvet Underground – “Venus in Furs” (1967)
from the album The Velvet Underground and Nico

Key lyrics:
“Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart”

The Velvet Underground was a transgressive act in its time, only avoiding genuine controversy due to its initial obscurity. On an album full of loving odes to hard drugs and those who deal them, “Venus In Furs” is a rare track that maintains its shock value – so many artists have made drug ballads, but rarer are the tracks begging for masochistic ecstasy. Explicit sexual lyrics are no longer taboo, but Lou Reed manages to suggest something seedier than mere vulgarities. Even here, Lou Reed showcases his melancholy side. When not begging for the whip, he suggests a boredom and emptiness unlike anyone has experienced.

Though acting as obvious provocateurs, The Velvet Underground truly succeed here through the music itself. The beat is simple yet effective, plodding along to set a slow pace. The sound suggests something foreign, some secret sex den people travel continents to visit. The true standout is John Cale’s wailing electric viola – The Velvet Underground may have influenced a thousand bands, but this remains one of their unique traits. Few bands would dare to even try imitating John Cale’s masterful skills. Due to all these unusual instrumental choices, “Venus in Furs” barely shows it age after 50 years.

170. Bob Dylan – “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965)
from the album Bringing It All Back Home

Key lyrics:
“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows”

Many of my favorite Bob Dylan songs are sprawling epics. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is very much the opposite, a short piece where Dylan seemingly shoots off a hundred syllables per second. That rapid fire delivery, of course, means he says just as much in this song as any of his longer works. This borders on feeling like a prototypical rap piece. The 1960s were a chaotic time, and few songs captured those overwhelming elements with a matching cadence. Drugs, civil rights, police brutality; this is a song trying to cover every inch in as little time as possible. Having listened to this at least a hundred times, I still struggle to keep up with Dylan’s delivery – even before picking up an electric guitar, Dylan was already pushing the boundaries of folk music by causing sensory overload.

But even if you find yourself struggling to process one line as he hits you with two more, Dylan’s delivery is on point. His sing-song rhythm emphasizes his insane rhyme scheme. On first listen, you will likely pick up these stray words as slogans of unknown meaning. Yet it’s not like Bob Dylan is suggesting futility – “Subterranean Homesick Blues” feels like he’s having a lot of fun.

169. Johnny Cash – “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955)
from the albums Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! And At Folsom Prison

Key lyrics:
“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”

Johnny Cash excelled at myth building, and few songs established his image better than “Folsom Prison Blues.” His casual delivery really sells his outlaw persona. Taken alone, that famous line about shooting a man in Reno could be taken as over-the-top or trying too hard. But with his half-hearted intonation, it’s just another fact of his misguided life.

While originally recorded for his first album, “Folsom Prison Blues” really comes to life thirteen years later. Johnny Cash made a bold move by recording his first live album at the actual Folsom Prison, and this made an obvious opener. There’s something special about hearing those actually going through the Folsom Prison blues cheering along. Though Johnny Cash had been playing the outlaw from the start, this is where he proved the act.

The song itself is a staple of its era, a perfect mix of country and early rock and roll. The rhythm bounces with Cash’s unique strumming style; slow, but with force. Beyond the iconic Reno line, “Folsom Prison Blues” is a desperate lament about a life wasted. Like Hank Williams before him, Johnny Cash plays with Western imagery as a source of isolation. But where Williams crooned in universal terms, Johnny Cash hit a sweet spot by playing the sympathetic villain.

168. Nirvana – “Lithium” (1991)
from the album Nevermind

Key lyrics:
“I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ‘cause so are you”

Nirvana were open about the influence of the Pixies on their music, and “Lithium” is a clear example. This is one of the ultimate quiet-loud tracks, remaining just subdued enough to stand out among many that exploded into outright fury. Though “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will always stand as the biggest track off Nevermind, “Lithium” feels the most refined. It’s not because “Lithium” lacks their confrontational attitude, but that it’s channeled in a unique direction. The ‘loud’ burst suggests mania instead of anger. As such, the chorus comes off as disconcertingly celebratory. Something feels just off, but it’s easy to get lost in the simple chanting of ‘yeah, yeah!’

Though the quiet-loud dynamic was key to the alternative rock movement, it is clear many bands put more emphasis on the ‘loud’ half of the equation. After all, that burst of energy acted as an easy payoff. On “Lithium,” Nirvana made both halves equally enticing. The quieter verses are full of clever lines and contradictions, while the instrumentation is affecting enough that it could support a full song alone. Yet the thump of the bass drum adds a tinge of tension to set up the impending burst. In the excessiveness of the 90s rock scene, few bands had any reason to hold back. “Lithium” captures the best of its era, but its relative restraint granted it lasting distinction.

167. Aldous Harding – “The Barrel” (2019)
from the album Designer

Key lyrics:
“Show the ferret to the egg”

On its surface, “The Barrel” feels like the most unassuming song I am covering in this project. In 2019, it is hard to argue this quietly comforting folk song was breaking new ground. Though I have found myself returning to it over and over again these last couple years, expressing why I find it so alluring proves difficult. This is by design – though her tracks tend to be less sonically aggressive, Aldous Harding writes with the same impenetrable lyricism that defined much of Beck’s career. But where Beck tended toward a playful nature, there is something quietly eerie about the contrast here.

Aldous Harding’s voice is warm, the piano light as a feather. The baritone sax that accompanies her into the chorus matches that gentleness. A man joins her in harmony during the first chorus – the second time around turns a bit off-putting as a third voice chimes in. Aldous sings with a childlike timbre; man, woman, and child sing as one. Though the lyrics are indecipherable, the imagery conveyed feels just telling enough. While singing with an incomparable serenity, Harding’s words express deeper concern. With the lyrics seeming to float right outside my comprehension, I feel the urge to crack them open. And though I might never understand, I have been rewarded by recognizing how rare it is to stumble across such a tranquil song.

166. David Bowie – “Young Americans” (1975)
from the album Young Americans

Key lyrics:
“Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”

David Bowie was never afraid to step outside his comfort zone. “Young Americans” found him stepping into the world of soul music. Though this essentially amounted to a one-off in that genre, Bowie pulled it off with unexpected skill, as though he had been making soul music his entire life. “Young Americans” is a track bubbling with unbridled energy as Bowie observes a young girl living too fast. This is a portrait of America by a very British man, and the velocity of his delivery suggests he wants to cover every inch. More than any other track, “Young Americans” explores Bowie as an ordinary human.

The song hooks from the opening note, a drum rolling into a piano rolling into a bouncy soundscape dominated by the sax. Though the instrumentation starts mellow, Bowie’s vocals push ever higher. By the fourth verse, Bowie explodes with so much energy that he sounds fearful of leaving out a single detail, only to end with the music going silent behind him as he belts out with a powerful falsetto. The backing vocals are ever present, suggesting a massive scale. “Young Americans” sounds as sweeping as its lyrics suggest. And though the lyrics lament wasted youth, I cannot help feeling energized by Bowie’s passionate delivery.

165. Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972)
from the album Transformer

Key lyrics:
“Holly came from Miami, FLA
Hitchhiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs, and then he was a she”

What a difference a few years make. “Walk on the Wild Side” feels pointedly taboo, yet Lou Reed found his breakthrough hit by singing about the beautifully strange people he met at Warhol’s Factory. This contains some of his most provocative lines, from the now mundane mention of transgender people to prostitution and drugs. For those immune to that sort of shock, Lou Reed hits from the other direction with an already archaic use of ‘colored girls’ during the chorus. Lou Reed appeared on a quest to offend mainstream sensibilities and was rewarded with a fame he never desired.

So, what made “Walk on the Wild Side” click with mainstream audiences while The Velvet Underground failed to chart? It is largely thanks to the delivery. Where the best Velvet Underground songs matched their niche themes with experimental music, Lou Reed plays this song almost too casually. Nothing quite breaks taboos like a self-assured voice. Lou Reed isn’t truly aiming to shock; these are simply the people who surrounded him. There’s nothing particularly extreme about any of these subjects from someone who experiences them daily. They are simply facts of life. “Walk on the Wild Side” is not a transgressive song, but rather a reassuring invitation to anyone who has ever felt unwelcomed in society.

164. Big Thief – “Shark Smile” (2017)
from the album Capacity

Key lyrics:
“She said woo
Baby, take me
And I said woo
Baby, take me too”

Love is a complex, borderline indescribable emotion. It’s not that there are no words, but a literal explanation fails to capture the true meaning. Most artists turn to metaphors to capture a better sense. Big Thief subtly exploit that expectation with “Shark Smile.” While sharing the structure of a love song, an entirely different form of heartbreak is waiting at the end of this road. “Shark Smile” operates like a deconstruction of a Bruce Springsteen classic – two lovers flee a dead-end town with nothing but each other. As the song goes on, Adrianne Lenker captures the passion by referencing their increasing speed.

Taking after Springsteen’s Nebraska era, “Shark Smile” is a perfect homage to the Boss. The drums beat along with the same rolling energy, suggesting a steady sense of forward motion. But Lenker’s voice is fragile in a way very unlike Springsteen. The relatively gentle song takes a harsh turn during its second chorus. The electric guitar wails, overwhelming Lenker. The wailing continues into the next verse as Lenker’s voice grows more desperate. The illusion is shattered as the lyrics get a bit too visceral – the song has been mixing metaphors and literal imagery all along, as there is no way to interpret this fatal verse in a purely metaphorical sense.

The truly heartbreaking moment comes in the final chorus. Though the lines are simple, with Lenker telling her lover to ‘take me, too’, the meaning has changed. What was first a plea to escape together transforms into Lenker begging to die alongside this lover. Having lost three friends in separate car accidents all in the same year, Lenker grieved by penning a moving tragedy about sudden loss.

163. Burial – “Archangel” (2007)
from the album Untrue

Burial’s “Archangel” exists at the intersection of so many sounds. Though an early dubstep hit, it blurs together elements of ambient to create an unsettling atmosphere. The frantic beat unnervingly collides against a glacial wall of electronic despair, a choir lost like ghosts in a machine. The result is something anxiety-inducing. “Archangel” evolves like a slow eruption, the ambient elements shifting ever upward. Little effects give a corrupted quality, as if the recording is on the verge of disintegrating as it plays. This track successfully covers the two extremes of electronic, its ambient architecture playing unpredictably against a steadfast beat.

Alongside the tense drum pattern, “Archangel” is held together by stunning yet simple R&B samples. The lines are generic feel-good phrases, but distorted into desperation. The result is something like a lover begging their partner not to go, the music capturing their growing dread. There are plenty of electronic tracks exploring similar unease, but “Archangel” features an emotional density few songs manage. Burial says so much with nothing more than a handful of stock phrases and pitch modulation. There are plenty of songs with a similar vibe, but the overall production on “Archangel” has placed it in a league of its own.

162. Fleet Foxes – “White Winter Hymnal” (2008)
from the album Fleet Foxes

Key lyrics:
“And, Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow
Red as strawberries in the summertime”

After being an almost quintessential element of popular music during the rise of rock, the presence of harmonies faded over time. I am not certain of the cause, whether it be declining popularity or artists simply turning their attention elsewhere. Whatever the case, the late 2000s saw a minor explosion of bands prioritizing harmony, from the bizzaro world of Animal Collective to the straight-laced sound of Grizzly Bear. Fleet Foxes’ debut album remains the true standout of this era, fusing lovely harmonies with some of the densest folk music around. It was at once modern and archaic, lushly produced while suggesting Appalachian folk of a mythical variety.

“White Winter Hymnal” is a short burst which highlights all their best elements. The song begins with a truncated phrase repeated over and over, more voices piling in before the chorus is finally allowed to continue with perfect harmony. The lyrics consist of beautifully detailed imagery which prove difficult to decipher, creating an atmosphere both nostalgic and sad. Between the three repetitions of the chorus, the band erupts in non-lyrical harmonizing, a bombastic sound suggesting emotions too powerful to express with words. And then we reach the final chorus, the instrumentation fading away to let the voices alone carry us through the bittersweet ending. Despite its brief length, “White Winter Hymnal” suggests a majestic tale of love and loss.

161. Townes Van Zandt – “Pancho and Lefty” (1972)
from the album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt

Key lyrics:
“Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes”

Writing about popular music, there is an easy way out I typically try to avoid. Lacking the knowledge to properly discuss the instrumentation, it is tempting to shift focus to the lyrics and themes. The same gripe I have with amateur film critics treating movies like little more than narrative vessels tempts me in this other medium. Especially with my slight audio processing difficulties, I largely do not parse the lyrics until I already like the song – even mentioning the lyrics thus feels disingenuous. I say all this to preface the fact that some songs simply are about the lyrical content. Certain musicians, such as Townes Van Zandt, take after the bardic tradition. This is a man, his guitar, and a tale of two notorious figures.

“Pancho and Lefty” is a quintessential western track, one that has been covered numerous times by more famous artists. Yet Townes Van Zandt’s sparse renditions stick with me more than any other. These are performances I can imagine around a campfire on a cold desert night. His southern drawl lends more authenticity – this could be a song swiped from the Wild West itself. The lyrics are evocative, from “breath as hard as kerosene” to “the dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” Van Zandt has no need for additional bells and whistles – his words pack a dense punch which would render a broader production redundant, too precise. The simplicity gives an air of truth.

160. Chico Buarque – “Construção” (1971)
from the album Construção

“Construção” is a song I was not immediately drawn to – as someone who cannot speak Portuguese, a six minute epic focused around bitter political criticisms did not appear accessible. It was only when I was tackling my annual song list update that I returned, curious to see if something clicked. With a bad habit of sometimes treating music like background noise, my focus turned elsewhere quickly. But then that moment happened – the horns came in with a horrifying blast, and I literally jumped in my seat.

I had sadly failed to give this song proper attention in my previous listens, the relatively quiet opening turning to a cacophony of warring voices and aggressive symphonic elements. Bossa nova rhythms keep it moving forward, not with the lightness typically associated with the genre but like a maddening spiral. The insistent patter of the lyrics steals my attention, even as someone incapable of understanding. Each line repeats the same twelve syllable structure, turning frantic, almost terrifying, when Buarque’s lone voice is joined by a crowd. “Construção” is far from a pleasurable experience, but it is a masterclass in disparate elements coming together to create an altogether singular soundscape. This is as turbulent as music come, easily breaking past the language barrier.

159. The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations” (1966)
from the album Smiley Smile

Key lyrics:
“Close my eyes, she’s somehow closer now
Softly smile, I know she must be kind”

Leave it to The Beach Boys to make one of the most complex recordings of its era and coat it in such a summery and pleasant sound that the average listener could easily overlook its marvelous originality by being caught up in its pure sonic bliss. “Good Vibrations” is proof that experimental is not synonymous with inaccessible. Some truly successful experiments become so embedded in our culture that their avant-garde origins become lost to time. The whirring Electro-Theremin is perhaps the most iconic oddity, but the beating cello adds more subtle complexity. On a songwriting level, “Good Vibrations” is fragmentary, gliding through stray elements with ease. Though bright and bubbly throughout, this is an obvious precursor to more extreme ‘rhapsodic’ hits like “A Day in the Life” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The question, then, is what makes “Good Vibrations” such an easy listen – similar works draw attention to their transitions, whereas “Good Vibrations” maintains an unlikely cohesiveness. In large part, this is due to the harmonizing The Beach Boys perfected over their long career. The sudden changes in tempo and volume allow the band to show off their vocal work. Quiet moments are an excuse to build back up to full force – “Good Vibrations” is a song loaded with payoffs.

158. Sonic Youth – “Teen Age Riot” (1988)
from the album Daydream Nation

Key lyrics:
“It takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now”

“Teen Age Riot” exists in a weird space, the definitive track from a band who otherwise sound nothing like this. At the same time, it’s not exactly a typical alternative rock anthem thanks to its length and odd structure. The song begins with a hazy, sing-song intro, Kim Gordon throwing out vague yet demanding phrases. This stops after eighty seconds, only for a different sound to break through the silence. This second section carries the rest of the track – the intro almost exists as a distinct entity, but the burst away from that section helps generate the sense of velocity that makes this so enticing.

What makes “Teen Age Riot” so distinctive is the sense of noise rock underpinning everything. This song is outright sunny in its presentation, but the frenetic energy comes straight out of a harder genre. It’s as if Sonic Youth wrote one of their typically chaotic pieces and then redesigned it as a summer anthem. Most metal acts would never dare sound this cheery, while punk acts penning similar songs largely lack the technical drive to make something so complex. Sonic Youth redesigned their style for “Teen Age Riot,” showing even the most niche genre could be made accessible. As the intro track to one of the strongest and noisiest albums of the 1980s, “Teen Age Riot” was a perfect invitation – welcoming, but just complex enough to prepare an unassuming audience.

157. David Bowie – “Lazarus” (2015)
from the album Blackstar

Key lyrics:
“Look up here, I’m in heaven”

While there is a seemingly endless supply of songs about death, few are written by someone actually in the process of dying. Even among artists getting on in age, few are put in a position to recognize their final moments. Rarer are the artists who, in that fragile state, are still capable of writing a genuine hit, a song that reminds everyone why they were so beloved in the first place. Only days before his death, David Bowie did the impossible, a legacy act releasing a late career album one could easily argue as his finest work. “Lazarus” stands as the clearest acknowledgement of his impending fate.

David Bowie was a musical chameleon, and he dared to push new boundaries even on this final release. “Lazarus” shows shades of both jazz and gothic rock, starting as a gently brooding piece before Bowie works himself into an impassioned plea. He proudly declares he will be free, but there is enough tension there to show his fear. The song then winds down with an extended instrumental outro – Bowie is gone, but his music will live on. And though there is a hint of fear in Bowie’s voice, the music itself suggests a meditative trance. Instead of spending his final months in terror, Bowie took the time to reflect and pen a fond farewell, not letting the curtain fall until it was truly over.

156. The Knife – “Full of Fire” (2013)
from the album Shaking the Habitual

Key lyrics:
“Let’s talk about gender, baby
Let’s talk about you and me”

With Silent Shout, The Knife were already teetering on the edge of abrasive. Shaking the Habitual found them diving headfirst into cacophony. Even the most accessible tracks spun out of control with unusual time signatures and piercing screeches. If Silent Shout is songs of oppression, Shaking the Habitual is a necessary act of rebellion. This is a band lashing out against tradition, both musically and toward larger cultural monoliths. “Full of Fire” finds just the right balance, a nightmare on first listen which becomes strangely transcendental as you cave to its wild demands.

Where earlier Knife tracks attempted to meet the audience halfway, “Full of Fire” is an auditory assault. Karin Dreijer’s vocals are more distorted than ever before, made worse by gasps for breath and wordless wailing. A relentless cascade of noise weaves through every second of this nine minute terror. Yet The Knife maintain perfect control throughout – this is a danceable techno track. A techno track which seemed to emerge from the same liminal space as the boiler room in Nightmare on Elm Street, but a piece of electronic dance music nonetheless. Despite its intimidating nature, “Full of Fire” is ultimately an eye-opening experience. Just as the lyrics reflect upon the malleable nature of gender identity, the instrumentation suggests the only limits on music are self-imposed.

155. Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Take Five” (1959)
from the album Time Out

“Take Five” is the definition of cool. Built around a 5/4 time signature, the song seems to slither through its elements. The beginning is soft, percussive elements played quietly while the piano comes in louder, yet with muted force. Then that signature sax comes in, again louder than the other instruments. It bobs up and down, weaving an unforgettable melody. None of these elements demand your attention but are compelling enough to capture the ear, the perfect sort of easy listening. After this quiet opening, the sax briefly disappears and the drums really begin to roll. The Dave Brubeck Quartet are playing with volume, and that quiet opening patter has evolved into an explosive drum solo. Yet even that never quite takes off – “Take Five” maintains a subdued sound throughout, only teasing toward a grand finale.

This is a piece that, while saying nothing with words, paints a very specific image. “Take Five” is a song playing in a penthouse café overlooking a city in the dead of night. The relative quiet combined with its growing volume creates an unusual effect, calm yet always evolving. Instead of building toward some grand release, the Dave Brubeck Quartet are emphasizing every individual note.

154. The Cure – “Close to Me” (1985)
from the album The Head on the Door

Key lyrics:
“But if I had your faith
Then I could make it safe and clean”

“Close to Me” falls closer to the pop rock side of The Cure’s oeuvre, though something about it is just upsetting enough to fall in perfectly with their gothic imagery. The keyboards are peppy, the rhythm playful – on an instrumental level, this might be their lightest song. But even before the vocals begin, quiet panting pervades the song. When Robert Smith actually starts singing, he sounds desperately out of breath. It’s as though he has escaped a horrid nightmare, the music representing peace in his waking world as the terror persists. Whatever haunted his dreams still looms, and this waking peace is only a brief respite.

The unease is subtly reinforced by the music – though it is light, it never quite escapes its repetitive loop. Taken with the lyrics, the peppiness could easily be taken as manic anxiety – key to this working as both a pop hit and a slightly unnerving Cure song. As such, this works to reinforce my positive moods and also comfort me during stressful times. Through most of their career, The Cure only turned to pop when they could cleverly subvert it. “Close to Me” is minimal and catchy, yet the shadows linger just out of view.

153. James Brown – “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (1970)
from the album Sex Machine

Key lyrics:
“The way I like it, is the way it is
I got mine, don’t worry about his”

James Brown had been performing since the mid-50s, slowly but surely transforming his sound into the emerging funk genre. 1970 forced a new style – when his backing band walked out, he had to find new members, and their skillset was not quite the same. The result was something minimal yet provocative. Compare this to the earlier funk hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Where that song was dominated by a horn section, “Get Up” is all about the bass. The earlier sound was bombastic, while the instruments here feel more mischievous and sly. This slick sound would come to define the funk genre at large.

James Brown was a phenomenal performer, and that shines on this recording. The vocals are structured as a call and response with Bobby Byrd, the lyrics short phrases allowing Brown to jump all over. Where his earlier funk hits found the horns warring with him over the spotlight, the instrumentation here works purely as backup. This is not to knock those earlier classics; rather, all the elements of “Sex Machine” are uniquely orchestrated to put James Brown right at the center. James Brown is a musical legend, and this song alone is enough to showcase his raw style.

152. Funkadelic – “One Nation Under a Groove” (1978)
from the album One Nation Under a Groove

Key lyrics:
“Feet don’t fail me now”

Funkadelic(/Parliament) are a rare popular band that might be better described as a collective. With a dozen vocalists, their performances are a party in themselves. “One Nation Under a Groove” is all over the place in the best way possible. The song begins with several voices playing against each other, some singing in harmony while others dance in the spotlight. A lone voice leads much of the track, but it is the other voices warping around him that draw attention. The harmonies sometimes jump to the forefront to directly support the lead, other times serving purely as backing. A more jovial voice chimes in now and then, a rough contrast to the smooth lead. This defines the sense of unity at the heart of the song – disparate voices working to create something larger than life.

For such chaotic vocals, the instrumentation has to tie everything together. Much like “Sex Machine,” the funky bass guides the song but remains firmly in the background. While wild synth lines pop in during the silence, many of the instruments simply work to reinforce the stray vocals. The magic of “One Nation Under a Groove” is how all these elements come together as a singular vision.

151. !!! – “Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard (A True Story)” (2003)
from the album Louden Up Now

Key lyrics:
“So if you got hips, shake ‘em
And if you got fears, forsake ‘em
Giuliani’s got his rules but we ain’t no fools
Let’s break ‘em”

More than any hit by LCD Soundsystem or The Rapture, !!!’s “Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard” captures the spirit of the original dance-punk era. It kicks off with a bouncy rhythm before adding one of the sexiest basslines known to man. Though its nine minute length might seem astronomical, it proves to be a worthy epic, shifting between several movements. While packed with plenty of vocals, !!! are not afraid to go off with several instrumental breaks. This is all about getting a crowd on the dancefloor and finding new ways to push those limits. Horns burst onto the scene at key moments, while a section near the two minute mark turns almost transcendental as rapid guitar strumming overwhelms everything but the drumbeat.

The punk elements are just as essential. The lyrics are a bratty attack on the politics of the time, though they somehow caught a lucky break with Giuliani growing into an increasingly absurd figure. Nothing here feels particularly complex on the technical side, and common descents into atonal scatting add to a DIY aesthetic. This is a jam with a whole lot of attitude. The only thing missing is the type of club that would actually play this type of music.

My Top 250 Songs Part 3 (#200-176)

200. Kendrick Lamar – “i” (2014)
single, alternative version featured on the album To Pimp a Butterfly

Key lyrics:
“I love myself”

Kendrick Lamar is among the most socially conscious artists working today. good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly especially paint powerful, sometimes overwhelming portraits of modern life as an African American. While many of his songs find him putting on a persona, “i,” as the title suggests, feels the most outwardly personal. It is also his most emotionally evocative. As Kendrick lists off all the forces trying to keep him down, the chorus bursts forth with a declaration of self-affirmation. No matter what the world throws his way, Kendrick will love himself.

Speaking of loving oneself is not a rare topic in hip hop – boast raps have been a part of the culture since the beginning. What makes “i” different is its explicit reference to depression. This is not bragging but an act of defiance against his own inner demons. The production adds to the conflicting, ultimately positive sense of celebration. A sample of The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” is perfectly retooled for this song. The bridge and third verse go off the deep end, Kendrick making perfect use of his love for vocal effects. His delivery during that final verse still blows me away, turning rapid-fire as he barrels over his own self-hatred, all building up to his final shout of “I love myself.”

199. Bruce Springsteen – “Thunder Road” (1975)
from the album Born to Run

Key lyrics:
“You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re alright”

Bruce Springsteen kicked off his breakthrough album with a song that so perfectly captures everything he represents, sonically and lyrically. Those opening notes are quintessential Springsteen, a pondering harmonica paired with a melancholy yet warm piano. This is signature heartland rock, a driving force perfect for speeding down the highway while searching for a place to belong. Springsteen captures a sense of ecstatic optimism that stops an inch short of sentimentality. While he is very much a rock star, this track exemplifies his distinct sound. Though the dominant instrument here is the piano, the frantic energy sets him apart from piano rockers like Elton John and Billy Joel.

At one point, Springsteen offers his hand. This is an introduction and an invitation – his first two albums are classics in their own right, but this is an artist knowing he has found his true voice. He might not be able to find this promised land, but the instrumentation shows he believes himself capable. His lyrics here are remarkably humble, a man certain of only his feelings and all too aware of how little he has to offer. This is the key balance to a Bruce Springsteen classic – tales of ordinary life rocketed into space by an expanding, emotive soundscape.

198. Nick Drake – “River Man” (1969)
from the album Five Leaves Left

Key lyrics:
“Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay”

Few artists of the 20th century feel as elusive as Nick Drake. After recording three albums to almost no commercial success, he died at age 26 of what may or may not have been suicide. Artists ending up in this position have a unique impact on popular culture – instead of setting the music scene on fire like The Beatles or Ramones, Nick Drake’s influence has slowly trickled throughout our culture. Though Drake operated firmly in the chamber folk scene for his first two albums, you can see shades of “River Man” in a diverse range of acts, from The Cure to Elliott Smith to Bon Iver.

On “River Man,” Drake sings with his typically fragile voice about the unbearable passing of seasons, at first backed largely by a guitar. Even in this pure folk section, there’s an uneasy feeling caused by the 5/4 time signature. Then we reach the chorus and the strings begin to rise, drowning out Drake’s voice until they briefly take center stage. It’s a swelling, mesmerizing, despairing moment. As Drake returns, the strings remain, an ominous force at times threatening to snuff him out. This is a lush and altogether haunting arrangement, a sleeper hit that feels like the prototypical art rock piece.

197. Lucy Dacus – “Night Shift” (2017)
from the album Historian

Key lyrics:
“I feel no need to forgive, but I might as well”

Some songs hit at the perfect moment. “Night Shift” came to my attention while in the midst of my divorce, and few breakup songs speak better to the messiness of the experience. Lucy Dacus hits so perfectly on a sense of not wanting anything to do with someone while simultaneously feeling incapable of moving beyond them. This particularly resonates due to its sense of an inescapable ex – my ex-spouse and I agreed to finish out our lease together, which lasted for nearly a year. The idea of ‘taking the night shift’ reminds me of heading straight from work to the houses of various friends just to have a space to regain my sense of self away from them.

Of course, I’m never the type to overvalue emotional resonance – “Night Shift” is a truly excellent song in its own right. What starts as the sparsest of indie rock slowly builds into a cathartic explosion. While Lucy Dacus showcases some excellent lyricism here, the key moment comes with the repetition of the final lines, her voice rising each time until she lets loose with a shout after a stunning guitar solo. This finale is one of the greatest moments of pure rock during the last decade. “Night Shift” is a masterful slow burn.

196. The Band – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969)
from the album The Band

Key lyrics:
“Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best”

Every once in a while, I’ll stumble upon a work of art that feels diametrically opposed to my own values, yet I can’t help but be drawn in. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a perfect example, a song lamenting the fall of the South after the Civil War without ever acknowledging why the war happened. Southern whites painting themselves as victims is tiring if not outright aggravating in the current era. But part of what makes this particular song work is the right amount of distance. The opening line positions this as a song from the perspective of a man from the era, creating the sense of a sonic period piece.

Despite its ordinary length, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” feels like a soaring epic. Levon Helm has such a perfect voice for the part, singing as if on the verge of tears. The chorus rises into a beautiful harmony, and brief pauses on either end really heighten the emotion. The drumming is such a key part of this experience, drumrolls accentuating the transitions and each line of the chorus. This is a song that transports you to another time, capable of placing you in the shoes of someone you might otherwise oppose. Such experiences expose the sometimes terrifying power of music to unify.

195. Buddy Holly – “Peggy Sue” (1957)
from the album Buddy Holly

Of all the rock acts of the 1950s, none have aged better to me than Buddy Holly. There is an energy to his music that feels several years ahead of its time – to think how the music industry might have looked if we didn’t lose him at age 22. “Peggy Sue” suggests a young man completely lost for words – only a couple lines in this song neglect to mention the name, while several repeat it again and again. This is an obsessive, single-minded track typically seen in certain electronic genres, but Holly makes it work with his iconic delivery. His vocal hiccups suggest a verbal tic; in this heightened state, can his mind process anything beyond her name?

The opening gets me every time, the drum rolling like a stampede, one element fading in and out. This song has a pulsing quality rarely seen in music of its time, and the accelerated tempo adds to the sense of lovelorn panic. Every element seems to be warring for attention – and then the guitar solo comes in, twice as loud as anything else. Despite Holly’s gentle voice, this is a surprisingly aggressive song. Few songs emphasize the ‘roll’ in rock and roll like “Peggy Sue.”

194. Bob Dylan – “Hurricane” (1975)
from the album Desire

Key lyrics:
“Put in a prison cell
But one time he could-a been
The champion of the world”

Bob Dylan had been making expansive folk epics for well around a decade at this point – the better parts of his late career are defined more by refinements than experimentation. “Hurricane” does, however, have one uncommon element for a Bob Dylan classic. The violin takes over as lead instrument here, the striking sound adding a melancholy edge to a song otherwise defined by fury. This is Dylan at his most impassioned. While plenty of Dylan songs are vitriolic, many are framed through cattiness – but these eight and a half minutes fly by in righteous anger.

Bob Dylan is rightfully considered one of if not the greatest lyricists ever, and this is on full display here. Made in response to an unjust trial, Dylan runs us through the details of the investigation and questions every step. He never stumbles with this ambitious task, weaving a full narrative around the music. As a protest song, it’s among the most successful – though Rubin Carter’s initial retrial did not work out, the attention brought by this song certainly impacted perception of the case. Decades later and well after the case was resolved, “Hurricane” sadly manages to hold up among Dylan’s most relevant songs. This is a damning portrait of racial injustice in America.

193. Lou Reed – “Perfect Day” (1972)
from the album Transformer

Key lyrics:
“You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone good”

At this point in his career, Lou Reed had already made an ode to heroin with the aptly titled “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. But where “Heroin” is defiant and almost joyful, “Perfect Day” is a lament – not necessarily about addiction itself but those things which pushed him to using. This is a song from the perspective of someone who sees only one way out of his misery. On the surface, an oblivious listener might even mistake this for a love song – and they might actually be right. Lou Reed perfectly blurs the line between love and addiction, taking whatever he can to fill the void that is the heart of this song.

Whatever the subject matter, “Perfect Day” perfectly captures the sense of someone who reassures themselves while everyone else can see them falling apart. Even the narrator seems aware, remarking that he will reap what he sowed by the end. This is another song defined by contrast, melancholy music matched with positive imagery. But even that sad music is strangely beautiful, those gentle piano notes rising to match Reed’s forced optimism. Or maybe it’s not forced – perhaps this is a moment of genuine happiness for someone otherwise trapped in a depressive state. There are many ways to interpret this song, but they all hit just as hard.

192. The National – “Fake Empire” (2007)
from the album Boxer

Key lyrics:
“Turn the light out, say goodnight
No thinking for a little while”

There is something about “Fake Empire” I find strangely comforting. Matt Berninger’s voice is deeply soothing when used in the right way, and this might be The National’s warmest song. That’s not to say “Fake Empire” is light – in fact, quite the opposite. This is a song about finding comfort in a failing world, an idea reinforced by the peaceful music. The National are explicitly offering up this song as an escape, which in turn suggests the situation at hand is hopeless. We can’t make it through this, Berninger seems to suggest, but at least we can pretend.

But what truly impresses be about “Fake Empire” is the way it builds. The song begins with a piano in an unusual time signature, sparse instrumentation backing Berninger’s voice. After the second verse, the other instruments subtly join in, only for the drums to go rocketing off with the third verse. Suddenly, this quiet song has a propulsive force. Not happy to stop there, the song descends into a chaotic horn section. Through all these changes, “Fake Empire” never loses its core sound or warmth. While most songs by The National have a signature sound, these little nuances ensure nothing comes across as too similar. “Fake Empire” stands tall by maintaining an uncharacteristically soothing atmosphere for rock as a whole.

191. Nina Simone – “Feeling Good” (1965)
from the album I Put a Spell on You

Key lyrics:
“Oh, freedom is mine
And I know how I feel”

Though Nina Simone did not write “Feeling Good” herself, she certainly managed to claim it as her own. Simone is a vocal powerhouse, and this song is the perfect showcase. The lyrics are straightforward, a rather simple show tune – but she sings with such passion to fill every word with grander meaning. Even without any explicit lyrics, it is easy to take Simone’s performance as one standing for black liberation. In every part of the natural world, she finds joy and solidarity. There’s no need for specifics; “Feeling Good” is a celebration of the universal value of freedom.

The song structure is fittingly grandiose for a show tune. For the first forty seconds, Nina Simone sings a capella. The instruments drop in with great force, at first rivalling Simone for the spotlight. During the next verse, she is given more room to breathe, the instrumental focus shifting to a quieter piano. The instruments then return to their full force, but Simone pushes herself beyond them, exploding into a barrage of scatting before giving one last powerful shout of “I’m feeling good” as the song closes. Few singers have ever sounded this powerful and self-assured. “Feeling Good” is a blast of pure optimism.

190. Roy Orbison – “In Dreams” (1963)
from the album In Dreams

Key lyrics:
“A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night”

The early 1960s were an awkward era for rock music. With a plane crash taking out three of the rising stars, Chuck Berry being arrested for sex with a minor, and Elvis Presley being drafted and losing much of his drive, the late-50s left a gap quickly filled by pop and soul acts. Roy Orbison serves as the perfect transitional figure leading into the British Invasion, a traditional pop artist with enough of a rock tinge to fill the void. The lovelorn themes of songs like “In Dreams” were common at the time, but Roy Orbison belted it out like no other – even through the present day, few artists have dared to sing in his style.

For better or worse, popular music is partially tied to image. Roy Orbison stands out among the pack by blurring the lines – his masculine demeanor is contrasted by his emotionally vulnerable subject matter. “In Dreams” is particularly resonant, finding the singer incapable of moving on because his dreams keep circling back to a lost love. The intro stands out among his repertoire, giving room for Orbison’s voice to shine while backed by a few distant strums before the song hits its full stride. This is a lush production defined by an unforgettable voice.

189. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better” (2015)
from the album Carrie & Lowell

Key lyrics:
“When I was three, three, maybe four
She left us at that video store”

Few albums capture the grieving process like Carrie & Lowell, which finds Sufjan Stevens coping with the death of his estranged, schizophrenic mother. “Should Have Known Better” is the second track, serving as a calm before a messy emotional storm. This is the denial track, not of her death but the idea her death should have any power over him after her abandonment. A line about being left behind at a video store hits particularly hard – when this is among someone’s defining childhood memories, it’s easy to understand their emotional distance. But like any abandoned child, Sufjan wishes for those wounds to be healed. Carrie’s death put an end to those fantasies.

The song shifts gears halfway through, bringing in a keyboard and percussive patter as Stevens shifts his attention to the positives which remains in his life. The death of his mother is contrasted with the birth of a niece, someone who will hopefully be a bigger part of his life. Even as the album continues into the darkest places, “Should Have Known Better” serves as a beacon of hope, a reminder that better things exist on the other side of his grief. Alone, it is a disarmingly bittersweet reflection.

188. Caribou – “Can’t Do Without You” (2014)
from the album Our Love

Key lyrics:
“Can’t do without
Can’t do without
Can’t do without-”

House music has a habit of building entire tracks around short phrases repeated ad infinitum. “Can’t Do Without You” oscillates between two phrases, one shifted to a low pitch, the other in Caribou’s distinct falsetto. The deeper vocals drop the subject and object from “I can’t do without you,” a simple change which modifies the focus. With the shorter phrase and desperate vocals, Caribou is fixated on how loss would affect him personally – the full phrase shifts attention to the relationship. The song ends with Caribou breaking free from the repetition, finally finding the words to express himself.

In house music, getting the right phrase mainly serves an ambient purpose – the vocals might as well be just another instrument. Here, the warring delivery serves as a backbone. The opening is sparse, more attention on the vocals than the instrumentation. As Caribou nears the end of the first falsetto section, the instrumentation roars to the surface, only growing louder and more chaotic with each shift. What started simple and clean becomes a wall of noise as Caribou loses himself in the emotion. Everything settles down once Caribou breaks the repetitive cycle. With little more than a stock phrase, Caribou crafted a marvelous ode to the self-inflicted torment of imagining a loved one leaving.

187. The xx – “Crystalized” (2009)
from the album xx

Key lyrics:
“So don’t think that I’m pushing you away
When you’re the one that I’ve kept closest”

The xx’s self-titled debut at first appeared rather unassuming – they made minimalist pop with a moody post-punk edge. In an off year seemingly defined by Animal Collective’s bizarro turn to pop – an album which seemed to promise the next step in music before ultimately fizzling out as a singular moment – and Lady Gaga breaking through with a larger than life persona, the 2010s promised to be bigger and louder than any era which came before. At the time, The xx came off as one of many strong indie bands. A decade on, however, they appear to be trendsetters – with mainstream pop and even hip hop taking a minimalist, sometimes melancholy tone, The xx were unexpectedly ahead of their time.

“Crystalised” is the signature song from this release. The music has an aggressive force, with an ominous wail underlining the otherwise simple instrumentation. The highlight here, as with many xx songs, is the way Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft come into conflict as vocalists. This is a dueling love song, with one suggesting the other is moving too quickly. The song begins by giving both their own lines, coming together in harmony during the chorus. But it’s during the finale when things really take off – the two repeat their lines, but now layered on top of each other. Their words mix together; they are now too close, forming perfect disharmony. What sounds like a mess on paper is flawlessly executed.

186. Beck – “Where It’s At” (1996)
from the album Odelay

Key lyrics:
“I got two turntables and a microphone”

Nonsense lyrics have been a staple in alternative rock since the beginning, but Beck brings a strangely organic quality. Oddity is in his nature, and “Where It’s At” is a signature example of his mesmerizing wordplay. It’s not that his lyrics mean anything, but his seemingly random choices have perfect cadence. “Jigsaw jazz,” “jamboree handouts,” “hirsute, with your parachute fruits” – these are phrases signifying nothing, yet I always find myself singing along. Surrealism does not imply throwing random concepts in a blender, but finding a unique connection from one to the other. Many struggle with this concept, but Beck somehow suggests the coolest party in the world with “Where It’s At.”

The structure is suitably chaotic. A funky rhythm serves as the backbone, but little moments scatter it in a hundred different directions. The end of the first chorus inexplicably replaces Beck with a robot voice. This is followed by a short drum break, which a sample then comments upon. Little samples from a sex education video are sprinkled out, and there’s an extended bridge including a scarier robotic shout as it really kicks off. Beck throws in whatever stray elements he can think of, yet it all comes together as a cohesive whole.

185. Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence” (1990)
from the album Violator

Key lyrics:
“Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm”

Few love songs are as ominous as “Enjoy the Silence,” both lyrically and in the music itself. Supporting the theme, the words can be taken in several conflicting ways – is this a testament to quiet intimacy, or is there something bubbling under the narrator is giving every excuse not to say? It must be better not to say anything at all.

The music matches this conflict. Gloomy instrumentation is pushed with a propulsive force, resulting in something between a synth-pop club track and a gothic lament. The line between sad and serene is expertly blurred, much like lying in the arms of a lover who has been rather quiet lately.

Though dealing with emotionally heightened subject matter and carrying a depressing tune, “Enjoy the Silence” is surprisingly easy to digest. This is perfectly crafted synth-pop at its most mature, showing a song can convince you to dance while also contemplating your personal connections. There’s no sense of irony here like many synth-pop classics – Depeche Mode found a way to make the mood match the sound. There are tiny details that add to the complexity as the song continues, but the mix chooses not to draw our attention to their presence. Instead, Gahan’s powerful yet anxious vocals remain centered.

184. Pixies – “Debaser” (1989)
from the album Doolittle

Key lyrics:
“Got me a movie, ha ha ha ho!
Slicing up eyeballs, ha ha ha ho!”

Released in 1989, Pixies’ Doolittle helped shape rock during the decade that followed – Nirvana have cited it as a direct influence, and the dominoes fall from there. As the first song, “Debaser” acts as a manifesto of sorts. Black Francis kicks the album off by paying homage to one of his own influences, the short film Un chien andalou directed by Luis Buñuel. The violent, surrealist imagery of that silent film perfectly match the emotional roulette that is listening to a Pixies album. The perfect part about these lyrics is they really do sound like nonsense without context; there’s something deeper to be discovered beneath all this shouting.

“Debaser” feels like a chill surf rock track played at breakneck speeds. Black Francis and Kim Deal have their vocals perfectly juxtaposed, his aggression played against her straightforwardly pretty singing. The second verse is the same as the first, except the back half of each phrase is replaced with a forced laugh. “Debaser” might actually be among the more traditional tunes on Doolittle at this point, but that is only due to it so perfectly capturing the spirit of alternative rock. This laid a template for so many bands to sing about nothing with great force.

183. Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight” (1995)
from the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Key lyrics:
“We’ll crucify the insincere tonight, tonight”

Few acts in the 90s alternative scene had a sound as expansive as the Smashing Pumpkins, and “Tonight, Tonight” just might be their biggest. Being the first lyrical piece on the epic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it is clear Billy Corgan wanted a singularly sweeping piece to set the scene. Including a 30-piece string section, this is a truly symphonic work. Though they have a tendency toward brooding (just look at that obnoxious album title), Smashing Pumpkins created a truly uplifting piece with “Tonight, Tonight,” a song which can easily carry the listener through the dark turns that follow. This is Billy Corgan reaching out a hand, welcoming the disillusioned to a musical journey.

There is something I find gripping about artists with unusual voices, and Corgan is undeniably among the strangest singers to achieve mainstream success. He inflects every word with a nasally quality, one that borders on grating at times. But as a songwriter, he knows how to write for his voice. It is hard to imagine “Tonight, Tonight” having the same effect if those lengthy notes didn’t carry his rough edge. But through all the strings and Corgan’s unique voice, the part that defines this song to me is Jimmy Chamberlin’s drumming. Chamberlin accomplishes the seemingly contradictory task of generating a tranquil forcefulness, perfectly bridging the lofty symphonic sound and the band’s alt rock roots.

182. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky” (2016)
from the album A Seat at the Table

Key lyrics:
“I traveled 70 states
Thought moving round make me feel better”

Imagine being Beyoncé’s little sister releasing an album only months after Lemonade shot the superstar to impossible new heights. Solange had no reason to be intimidated – A Seat at the Table matched her sister’s masterpiece in excellence. Instead of dabbling in pop like her sister, Solange explored a style of soul that had gone largely ignored for the better part of a decade. The lead single, “Cranes in the Sky,” was an instant soul classic, showing Solange to have a truly powerful voice.

“Cranes in the Sky” has a transcendental quality. The lyrics show someone struggling with their personal life, listing off all the ways she has attempted to escape her negative thoughts. This is a slow song, giving every drum beat impact. Extended string notes suggest a meditative quality – though she focuses on the difficult moments, it is clear Solange is trying her best to move on. All of this builds toward the refrain, where Solange repeats the word ‘away’ over and over, growing louder with each repetition, more and more voices coming in to give her support. Though the lyrical content never reaches a point of relief, the song as a whole captures a feeling of forward-thinking hope.

181. The Specials – “Ghost Town” (1981)
non-album single

Key lyrics:
“Too much fighting on the dance floor”

Of the many terms I associate with ska, ‘ominous’ would not be one. Yet “Ghost Town” thrives in that apocalyptic tone, an all-time classic within its genre due to its blunt reimagining of what ska could be. All the elements are there, but they have been reconstituted to paint a picture of urban distress. There are plenty of works that try to deconstruct a genre, but that is not what is happening here. This is earnestly ska (of the two-tone variety) in a distinct form; like “Blister in the Sun,” it succeeds by going somewhere so unexpected that anyone attempting the same unfortunately come across as imitators. “Ghost Town” could have signaled the dawning of a new genre entirely but instead stands as a singular hit.

The spine-chilling opening is an all-time classic. The instrumentation is familiar, but simply being played at a slower pace creates such a suffocating atmosphere compared to ska’s typically (perhaps gratingly) cheerful mood. But it’s not all despair – an important bridge briefly switches up the pace, reflecting on better times. This is a band that wants to celebrate, finding themselves in a world with no reason for joy. The verses cycle through several vocalists instead of having a lead, expertly suggesting the societal level of the band’s grievances.

180. Todd Terje – “Inspector Norse” (2012)
from the EP It’s the Arps, later featured on the album It’s Album Time

To me, “Inspector Norse” is pure ecstasy. Released near the beginning of my college days, I can’t listen without thinking of walking through campus while blasting this from my iPod Nano. Every time it came on shuffle, I wanted to dance like an idiot down the sidewalk – it’s the perfect tune for getting from one place to another. Todd Terje created disco for a new era, capturing a sense of motion like few others. Many songs create a feeling of forward momentum, but “Inspector Norse” is different in a way that is hard to define in words.

From the beginning, there’s a bounciness to its rhythm few songs try to capture. Little synth sounds whiz by, unpredictable in their pattern but amplifying the shockingly expressive energy of this instrumental piece. A little over a minute in, a comparatively mellow synth line joins in, itself bouncy but with its own distinct pattern. Bounce is played against bounce, the initial beat serving as a familiar backbone while the other elements shoot for the sky. This is the best kind of electronic music, perfect for the dancefloor while pulling out enough stops to remain a thoroughly engaging listening experience. Whatever mood I find myself in, “Inspector Norse” gets me on my feet.

179. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Into My Arms” (1997)
from the album The Boatman’s Call

Key lyrics:
“And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you, I wonder if that’s true”

“Into My Arms” is far from a standard Nick Cave song. Better known for the gothic rock of his early era or his more experimental works during the 21st century, this song is disarmingly simple. Here, Nick Cave uses nothing but a piano and electric bass for a touching love ballad. Much like The Cure and their pop ditties, these deep emotions have an extra air of authenticity when coming from someone who usually sings from a darker place. The key element here is how specific Cave gets in the descriptions of his love.

With the sparse instrumentation, the focus is entirely on Cave’s lyrics, where he has always excelled but hits a high note here. Nick Cave frames his love in religious terms. While this is a common lens for many love songs, the distinction here is that Nick Cave sings from an atheistic perspective. While starting every verse by noting his lack of belief, he then meets his religious lover halfway – he might not believe, but he will speak in the terms she finds soothing. While so much media portrays atheists with condescending attitudes toward religious folk, Cave expresses something genuine and humanist about that divide. He might not believe, but he recognizes the spiritual significance of these ideas and uses a unifying element to express his love.

178. Neil Young – “Heart of Gold” (1972)
from the album Harvest

Key lyrics:
“You keep me searchin’ and I’m growing old”

A large part of my musical journey has been defined by a desire to understand the perspective of others. Whenever I come across a classic artist who fails to click with me, I have a tendency to give them more attention than those I immediately enjoy. This may seem counterintuitive, but I am as drawn to music for its cultural impact as I am for my own enjoyment. Though I’m still puzzled by certain acts (the whole hair metal era feels like a practical joke), I have discovered several of my favorites through this strange determination – Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Brian Eno, just to name a few. Few overcame a larger barrier than Neil Young.

The obvious difficulty is his voice. There are plenty of major artists with questionable vocal abilities, but Neil Young’s higher pitch felt particularly grating when I first listened. Many of his more approachable songs largely hide his voice away, sprawling guitar epics with little need for words. Hearing “Heart of Gold” numerous times was the turning point. Young might not have a pretty voice, but he knows how to write a song to benefit from his apparent weakness. On “Heart of Gold,” he sounds as vulnerable as a man can be. Young is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and once you adjust to his unique style, his truly masterful songwriting makes itself apparent. The harmonica is among the best this side of Bob Dylan, while his impassioned vocals are joined by a chorus of others for a cathartic payoff. Not in spite of but because of Young’s rough vocals, “Heart of Gold” is among the most moving songs I know.

177. Vampire Weekend – “Hannah Hunt” (2013)
From the album Modern Vampires of the City

Key lyrics:
“Though we live on the US dollar
You and me, we got our own sense of time”

From the beginning, Ezra Koenig was a brilliant lyricist. Vampire Weekend’s first two albums paired this with a twee sound that balanced a strange line between prime hipsterdom and mainstream appeal. Their self-titled debut is itself a modern classic, but a strong yet familiar follow-up in Contra suggested they might have a limited range. Developing a mature sound as complex as Koenig’s lyrics, Vampire Weekend proved themselves all-time greats with Modern Vampires of the City. Few songs showcase this as well as “Hannah Hunt,” a gentle song that explodes into a passionate plea during its finale.

The first verse has wonderful imagery, Koenig quick on the wordplay. The narrator appears baffled by a claim of moving plants, only to cite two stationary plants with moving names as proof. Koenig continues to describe a couple travelling all across the United States, literal imagery implying growing conflict as the girl grows frustrated with their travels. The song closes with two repetitions of the chorus, the first dropping out much of the instrumentation. Shortly after, the song spontaneously bursts with energy, Koenig shouting his anger. The general downtempo sound through much of the song forms a perfect contrast for its cathartic release. Few songs capture the dawning horror of a relationship ending like “Hannah Hunt.”

176. Lorde – “Royals” (2013)
from the album Pure Heroine

Key lyrics:
“I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh”

Growing up, I was never the biggest fan of pop music. A genre designed to be as catchy as possible, I found much of it to be literally headache-inducing. It takes true talent to craft a pop song that stops just short of being annoying. At age sixteen, Lorde seemed to be just as annoyed when she penned “Royals.” Both lyrically and sonically, this was an assault on mainstream pop that nevertheless achieved unlikely success. Several teen pop stars have shot into the spotlight over the years, but few felt so convincingly dismissive of her contemporaries – Lorde stepped onto the scene to show us how to do pop music right.

While The xx set the stage for a minimalist movement in the indie scene four years earlier, Lorde proved mainstream viability with “Royals.” The instrumentation is sparse, enough to be catchy in the moment but never linger like so many unwanted ear worms. Her vocals are strong but avoid extravagance. Like Amy Winehouse before her, Lorde comes across with an air of authenticity in a medium largely defined by excessive glamour. Few songs have had such an immediate impact – the best pop hits became a lot mellower as the decade continued. I listen to quite a bit more pop these days, and not due to a personal change of heart. Pop changed, and “Royals” is the clearest turning point.

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.