Everything comes to an end, and so does this project.
As we previously discussed in the first half of this list, the staff of Consequence of Sound assembled in the fall of 2012 to decide upon the 100 greatest songs of all time.
It wasn’t easy, but what really wasn’t easy was this next half. Deciding the top 50, especially the final 10, was a torturous experience, one that nearly split apart the team.
Okay, not really, but who doesn’t love some drama?
50. Pavement – “Summer Babe (Winter Version)”
Slanted and Enchanted, 1992
Pavement were never dressed for success. On Slanted and Enchanted, they sounded like they haven’t done laundry in years. Even now it’s hard to tell whether ”Summer Babe (Winter Version)” is a ne’er-do-well savant stroke of genius or a calculated masterpiece disguised in ripped acid-washed jeans. But it’s proof that three slack mothefuckers (later joined by Bob Nastanovich and Mark Ibold) who can sorta play their instruments can also write a perfect summer love song.
From Gary Young’s calamity on the set, to Spiral Stairs’ slippy bass riff (played on a guitar run through a bass amp), to S.M.’s overdriven and disconnected solo, “Summer Babe” balances the angular music with a simple song about an estival love in Stockton, CA. Malkmus will wait and wait and wait and wait and wait for that girl with the shiny robes who “stirs her cocktails with a plastic tipped cigar.” More small moments that just add up to so much: Young’s idiotic ideas on how to kick it up a notch on the drums at the end, Malkmus’ laugh on “drop off” in the third verse, and the everybody-now tender climax of “you’re my summer babe.” But success it should have come. -Jeremy D. Larson
49. Metallica – “One”
…And Justice for All, 1989
Metallica usually put the “b” back in subtle in their early work (“Alcohollica” was their nickname and Metal Up Your Ass was the slated title of their first release, for two) but when your subject matter is the deaf, blind, and mute quadruple-amputee soldier from the 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, you got a little more room to run with your metaphors — lyrical or otherwise.
The song’s many sections build off each other, adding more gain and panic with each minute. Hammet even foreshadows his premiere tapping solo with an I-guess-you-could-call-it gentle tapping solo earlier in the song, and that double bass drum riff that Lars Ulrich plays at the top of the final section wasn’t an intentional echoing of the war going on inside of the soldier’s head, but it’s forever a machine gun now.
For the handful of you who haven’t seen VH1’s Behind the Music on Metallica, the times following former bassist Cliff Burton’s death were tumultuous at best, masochistic at worst. The guys purportedly sabotaged the production on …And Justice for All, but its damaged sound fit the damaged band that was making it. “One” apes the compositional forms of former songs like “Fade to Black” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and borrows from fine literature just like “Call of Ktulu” did, but the unfortunate circumstances around the album and song made for the most fortunate results. –Jeremy D. Larson
48. Can – “Halleluwah”
Tago Mago, 1971
Like one of those Phoenixes, Can ascended from the ashes of post-World War II Germany in the ’70s with melodies embodying ambience, sprawling experimentation, and tribal-infused psychedelia. Comprised of the finest classically-trained jazz musicians — Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay trained under avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen — the band formed when Schmidt heard The Velvet Underground on a trip to New York. The frenzied improvisation of “Halleluwah” melts wailing guitar-lines, Jaki Liebezeit’s proto-krautrock percussion, and vocalist Damo Suzuki’s diaphragm-crunching yelps, murmuring in a dialect that combines Japanese, German, and melodic nonsense. Not quite an angelic praise, Can’s 18-minute piece de résistance is both a demonic and sultry plea, howling for rebirth. -Paula Mejia
47. The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations”
“Good Vibrations”, 1966
Brian Wilson’s mad genius made him the Orson Welles of music, which makes “Good Vibrations” his Citizen Kane. Appending upon Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production techniques, the song’s composition is a 90-hour patchwork of evocative recordings boiled down to a potent three and half minutes of melodic charm. It’s extraordinary the sessions did not result in a cacophonous mess considering the sheer volume of chaotic noise exploding both inside the studio and Wilson’s fragile mind. But despite all the bedlam, the complexity of “Good Vibrations” somehow stands as one of the catchiest tunes of all time. The Beatles admit to pulling inspiration from this “pocket symphony,” while contemporary artists like Animal Collective, The Decemberists, and even Girl Talk owe thanks to its sonic mashups, myriad remixes, and ecclectic instrumentation (a Tannerin and a cello never sounded sweeter together). Experimentations and excitations make music fun, but perseverance, foresight, and a touch of insanity keep it timeless. -Dan Pfleegor
46. Madonna – “Like a Virgin”
Like a Virgin, 1984
Madonna’s rise to superstardom was predicated upon a core dichotomy at the center of her public persona: She’s both an innocent, vulnerable girl and a sexual, confident woman. “Like A Virgin”, the title track from her second album and her first number one single, cemented this dichotomy. The song is probably not as musically dynamic as, say, anything by contemporaries Cyndi Lauper or Eurythmics, but Madge silenced critics who had marked her debut album a fluke success by injecting a liberal dose of sexuality into the burgeoning MTV culture of pop music. She creates a semiotic tangle by juxtaposing sultry “whoas” on the song’s bridge with her Lolita-esque “hey!” on the chorus; ditto for her black ’80s punk outfit and the white wedding dress. The video’s symbolism — lions, tunnels, masks — provided scholars with enough ammo to make Madonna an icon of post-modern feminism, or post-capitalist consumer culture, or sexual decadence in the face of neo-conservatism. Either way, without “Like a Virgin”, the superstar par excellence of the last 30 years would have just remained a hit. -Jake Cohen
45. N.W.A. – “Fuck Tha Police”
Straight Outta Compton, 1988
According to an FBI bulletin sent to Priority Records in August 1989, N.W.A.’s greatest song “encourages violence against, and disrespect for, the law-enforcement officer.” Uh, was there ever any doubt? “Fuck tha Police” brought N.W.A. head-on with two issues its members had doubtless seen over and again in their native Compton: racial profiling and police brutality. Over funky samples of James Brown, Roy Ayers, Marva Whitney, and others, MCs Ice Cube, Ren, and Eazy-E took shots at cops with lines like “Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product/ Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics.” A statement this forthright couldn’t help but be, well, arresting – and nobody ever said Compton’s most willful did this one to make friends with the boys in blue. -Mike Madden
44. LCD Soundsystem – “All My Friends”
Sound of Silver, 2007
Not all of us are terrified of becoming culturally irrelevant. Most people don’t give it a second thought. James Murphy, on the other hand, feared it and his self-conscious, inverted, sardonic anxiety was epitomized in 2002’s groundbreaking single “Losing My Edge”. But it wasn’t until LCD Soundsystem dropped the funky basslines and hypnotic piano of 2007’s “All My Friends” that he really struck big and chord with the masses. In less than eight minutes, Murphy gracefully touched upon themes of abandonment, failure, nostalgia, loss, and redemptive yearnings. Again and again, Murphy cries out in dire pain, “Where are your friends tonight?” Each time it hits us harder and harder, thanks to the surging percussion that lifts every beat. As the sustain fades away on the last chord, Murphy is right there beside you calming your restless heart, and walks away leaving an echo of some imagined midlife crisis. Relevancy? Dude, this track got millions to care about your coffee shop. -Michael Zonenashvili
43. David Bowie – “Space Oddity”
David Bowie, 1969
“Space Oddity” is about finding yourself in whatever galaxy you may reside in. It starts with a few subtle strokes on an acoutstic guitar, before Bowie “commences countdown” and orates the narrative journey of Major Tom. If understood as more of a cerebral fantasy, “Space Oddity” focuses on one’s search of independence through the courage to be alone, as constructed through the ideologue of Major Tom. Outside of that fantasy, however, it embodies the unique, if not strange, trajectory of Bowie’s influential career as an artist. -Summer Dunsmore
42. Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean”
“It has more hooks in it than anything I’ve ever heard,” said mega-producer/record exec Antonio “LA” Reid. “You could separate it into 12 different musical pieces and I think you’d have 12 different hits.” That’s all very true, but the power of “Billie Jean” reaches far beyond sheer hooks. The video, famed for those squares of road lighting up under Jackson’s flittering feet, is often cited with breaking the race barrier of MTV in the early 80s, when it became the first clip from a black artist to garner heavy rotation. When he sang the hit in 1983 at the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV special, Jackson premiered his now-iconic moonwalk, a move that went on to define his performances and redefine what your uncle would try to do at weddings. Spending seven weeks atop the U.S. charts, “Billie Jean” was Jackson’s most successful single; with its historical significance, both to Jackson the performer and music as a whole, its eminence is indelible, a mark pop music will wear proudly and gratefully for decades to come. -Ben Kaye
41. Al Green – “Let’s Stay Together”
“Let’s Stay Together”, 1971
Following a string of minor hits covering artists like Junior Parker and the Temptations, “Let’s Stay Together” would be the first song to highlight Al Green’s shift from blues-tinged R&B to sweet falsetto. With the song’s main theme written by bandleader and producer Willie Mitchell and Booker T. & the MGs drummer Al Jackson, Jr., “Let’s Stay Together” centers around a rolling drum beat characteristic of flowing piano chord changes. Once Green heard the demo, he penned the lyrics in under half an hour. However, he wasn’t too thrilled about his vocals on record. Convinced they had a hit, Mitchell’s objective ears and skills as a producer eventually outweighed any of the troubled singer’s doubts and insecurities and the two released the song. Within weeks of its release “Let’s Stay Together” became Green’s first #1 single, opening a floodgate of subsequent hits that would eventually define Green as the sound of early ’70s soul. -Len Comaratta
40. The Stooges – “Search and Destroy”
Raw Power, 1973
The one constant in any good piece of rock ‘n’ roll is danger, and by that measure “Search and Destroy” is TNT with a wick slabbed in lacquer. The loudest, raunchiest song on one of the loudest, raunchiest records ever made (1973’s Raw Power), “Search” is a track so menacing and seemingly out of its right mind that it’s uncomfortable to take in on first listen. Everything comes together in one raucous mix; from Iggy Pop’s sultry, live wire vocals, to James Williamson’s greasy, eight-cylinder guitar parts, and to the crash and burn rhythm section of Ron and Scott Asheton. The end result is one every self-respecting hard rock band aspires to but few have attained: A song so ugly and sinister you actually feel like you’re doing something wrong just by listening to it. -Ryan Bray
39. Talking Heads – “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”
Speaking in Tongues, 1983
On the DVD release of the legendary Stop Making Sense concert film, David Byrne sits down with the most incisive of interviewers: himself. In it, he offers up some insider info, including a candid description of the set’s love song, “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”, which he sings to a lamp. He wanted to write a song “almost completely of non sequiturs, phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities,” and it succeeds in producing a love song universally effective in its language and delightfully charming music. The dichotomy of adorably bubbling synth rhythms and haunting, deep lyrics within hit a benchmark for indie ballads, and devotees like Arcade Fire and MGMT went on to show respect for the Talking Heads’ legend in cover form on stage. -Adam Kivel
38. Sam Cooke – “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Ain’t That Good News, 1964
Few could have predicted that Sam Cooke — the “King of Soul” and voice behind light pop fare like “Send Me”, “Wonderful World”, and “Twistin’ the Night Away” — would pen what many now consider to be the quintessential civil rights anthem of the ‘60s. Inspired by a personal brush with Jim Crow and a growing sense that he needed to begin addressing racism in his music, Cooke poured his own fears, doubts, and confusion into “A Change Is Gonna Come” and emerged in the song’s final verse with the belief that he had the strength to carry on. Sadly, Cooke was fatally shot less than a year after recording the song that has become his most enduring legacy. Nearly 50 years later, Cooke’s words continue to give hope and strength to those who still need them: “It’s been a long time comin’/ But I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.” -Matt Melis
37. The Replacements – “I Will Dare”
Let It Be, 1984
Paul Westerberg was a scruffy romantic who loved punk rock, pop hooks, and the occasional bittersweet stanza. They defined his songwriting just as his sensible, Midwestern mindset defined his lyrics. He wrote songs about normal people, for normal people, and he wrote his best ones on 1984’s Let It Be. “I Will Dare” opens the album. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck (who guests on lead guitar) propels a jangly strut that’s relaxed, but tight enough to carry Westerberg’s melody. “How young are you?/ How old am I?/ Let’s count the rings around my eyes,” he sings as the endearing smartass who’s going for the girl, offering his date a deal of “If you dare/ I will dare.” A definitive Replacements song, “I Will Dare” evokes the warm fuzzy feelings synonymous with John Hughes films and that time you held hands with your first girlfriend. There are howls of adolescence (“How smart are you?!”), but also a calm coolness. Westerberg was maturing: less snotty punk, more meditative drunk at the end of the bar. It’s forever framed as his finest composition. -Jon Hadusek
36. The Ronettes – “Be My Baby”
“Be My Baby”, 1963
It starts with the drums. “Be My Baby” would have a strong argument for inclusion on any top 100 list if the song ended after the first four seconds, after Hal Blaine’s drum intro that’s become one of rock’s signature drum patterns ever since. The “Be My Baby” beat, one of the several latin flourishes Spector would implement on this song and others, has since become one of rock and pop’s primary ways of nodding to its own past, with everyone from Elvis Costello to Deer Tick, since referencing the drum beat from the record that showed the world that, sometimes, there’s nothing more serious than a pop song. Ronnie Spector’s desperate plea bled through a million transistor radios in 1963, and to this day, the Barry/Greenwich tune still thrills and confounds anyone trying to write a two and a half minute song with stakes as high, and melodies as aching, as this one. -Jon Bernstein
35. Daft Punk – “One More Time”
This love letter to disco from the new millennium, packs so much fun into five minutes that it coerces its listeners to feel the need to “celebrate and dance so free” as if it’s The Last Time (for what, we’re not sure, but, you know, you’ve only got this last chance). Romanthony’s vocal performance popped out on the other side of the vocoder as the fist-pumping, body-rattling trademark of this French duo’s biggest hit to date, set to a backdrop of sky-high synths and EQ’d horns. Discovery was an ode to childhood, and this album opener seizes the bliss of hearing something great for the first time: “Music’s got me feeling so free.” -Amanda Koellner
34. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”
Rust Never Sleeps, 1979
In 1979, punk was undeniable, and rock’s old guard needed to catch up. “Rock and roll will never die” isn’t self-confident bravado; it’s a defense mechanism, a statement of uncertainy and hope, from a middle-aged singer wondering if he’d still have a career at age 40. “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” is the sound of rock and roll finally growing up and becoming an adult, acknowledging its mortality while maintaining every intention of keeping on. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is the one-liner here, the one Kurt Cobain chose to leave the world with in 1992. But the morose anthem is so much more than a call to live fast and die hard. It’s a state of the union address, a statement of rock’s past, present, and future summed up in a few clever lines that have rightfully been taken to heart by many a teenager picking up their first guitars in the last 30 years. The real takeaway line, of course, the one that sums up this song better than any other, is that “there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.” -Jon Bernstein
33. The Clash – “London Calling”
London Calling, 1979
During World War II, when Britain was a beacon in war-torn Europe, BBC World Service identified itself on international broadcasts with the slogan “This is London calling. . .”. Three decades later, The Clash hijacked the phrase for 1979’s London Calling, and the album’s eponymous track repurposed those four words as not a call of freedom, but of apocalyptic foreboding. Concerns over police brutality (“we ain’t got no swing/ except for the ring of that truncheon thing”), economic tribulations (“the wheat is growing thin/ engines stop running”), and disasters like the Three Mile Island meltdown (“a nuclear error”) were plaguing many minds during the turn of the century — and parallel fears exist today. The Clash were feeling the anxieties firsthand, operating without management and with escalating debt.
“We felt that we were struggling, about to slip down a slope or something,” Joe Strummer said, “grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us.” All that fear is palpable in the song, from the militaristic minor key march, to Paul Simonon’s bass breathing like a sleeping monster, to Strummer’s own howling delivery. The song’s rebellious streak and distrust of the status quo makes it one of the most quintessential punk records ever, and it doesn’t take much strain to hear those calls of London echoing in the present. -Ben Kaye
32. Black Sabbath – “War Pigs”
“War Pigs” was originally a song about witches titled “Walpurgis”, but Ozzy Osbourne changed the lyrics and title during the recording of Paranoid. It became an anti-war rant in which Ozzy — always refreshingly direct — illustrates the horrors of combat and points fingers at our leaders (“Politicians hide themselves away/ They only started the war”). Iommi lends his riffs to the cause, accentuating verses with bluesy fills, dexterously wrapping chords around drummer Bill Ward’s unpredictable breakdowns. Black Sabbath patented the downtuned chug that defines heavy metal, and “War Pigs” is a signature example of that powerful aesthetic. Hell-bent on getting his point across, Ozzy sings at you. Iommi’s riffs quake you. As listeners, we can think about its subject matter or headbang to its ferocity. After 42 years, “War Pigs” had retained moderate FM rotation despite its eight-minute runtime, and its message remains a poignant reminder of why war is best avoided. -Jon Hadusek
31. Patti Smith Group – “Rock N Roll Nigger”
Patti Smith forges manic poetics with punching guitar rhythms on “Rock and Roll Nigger”, crafting her own distinct medley of pre/post/anti-punk that defies any neat categorization. But fuck titles anyway, right? Smith’s influence on music during the past four decades is indisputable, and with the release of “Rock and Roll Nigger” on 1978’s Easter, she became untouchable and limitless, showing everyone just how provocative she could be. It’s a primordial punk anthem, a song that embodies all of Smith’s raw magnetism and unbridled emotion. “Baby was a black sheep, Baby was a whore. . . Baby was a Rock and Roll Nigger,” she sings with crooked intensity. Controversial from top to bottom, it’s fair to say that only the ever-daring Patti Smith could get away with a track like this. -Summer Dunsmore
30. Jimi Hendrix Experience – “All Along The Watchtower”
Electric Ladyland, 1968
Jimi Hendrix isn’t the only musician to turn a cover into their biggest hit, but few have succeeded using a song by one of the the world’s greatest songwriters. With universal themes about the low and downtrodden confronting the gilded towers of the powerful, Hendrix’s fervid and simply masterful guitar solos elevate the track’s tension in ways that were only hinted at in Bob Dylan’s original. The great bard himself, in fact, heralded this version as the consummate one in a 1995 interview with Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel Today: “He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using,” Dylan said of Hendrix’s version. “I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” He’s not the only one who has appropriated the power of this rendition. Everything from Forrest Gump to The Watchmen to The Simpsons has featured the song, most often in scenes dealing with the ’60s and the Vietnam War. Whenever there’s a moment of grand socio-political unease that needs intensifying, this is the go-to soundtrack. -Ben Kaye
29. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
“Love Will Tear Us Apart”, 1980
Many songs have taken on new life after the untimely death of its creator. Released in April 1980, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” had barely scratched the surface before the sorrow of Ian Curtis’ suicide a month later propelled it up the charts. Yet it’s that tragedy which has always lingered and kept it unnaturally real, making it near impossible to find a more eloquent expression on fractured relationships. Curtis spilled his soul into these lyrics, reflecting upon his troubled marriage to his wife, Deborah, and its words and implicit meanings only took on an added poignancy following his untimely death. Decades later, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” continues to resonate, having been kept alive by successive generations and artists, whom all have found solace in its timeless poetry. -Tony Hardy
28. Neutral Milk Hotel – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998
“I prefer for people to make up their own meanings to my songs and apply them to their life and relate to them the way they choose,” Jeff Mangum told Pitchfork in 2008. It’s important to keep that in mind when listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and final full-length, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and its title track. Yes, it revolves largely around Anne Frank and Mangum’s obsessive empathy for her, and yes, you could pick apart its lyrics and develop a thesis of how they tie into Frank’s death. But that sort of analytical approach has nothing to do with the song’s legacy. The Anne Frank connection was something very specific to Mangum, not the rest of us, and such dissection undercuts the track’s emotional clairvoyance, a critical approach of which Mangum wouldn’t approve. For me, “Aeroplane” glides along with an odd sense of ease. It’s about how a brief moment of contentment can sometimes outshine a crippling tragedy in one’s life. It’s more of an accepting viewpoint than an optimistic one. That’s what it means to me. What does it mean to you? -Dan Caffrey
27. The Who – “My Generation”
My Generation, 1965
In rock music, “I hope I die before I get old” is as seminal a line as they come — the ultimate spit in the face of age and authority. “My Generation” tagged Pete Townsend as a spokesman for youth, a rebel with a clause. A simplistic rabble-rouser to empower kids and alienate parents, the song is equally inventive with Roger Daltrey’s frustrated half-swearing stutter and deft interplay between Townsend’s guitar and John Entwistle’s bass, countering Keith Moon’s frantic pounding. Though embraced by successive generations, it wasn’t a huge commercial success originally. Released in November 1965, it hit #2 in the UK charts, yet only #74 in the US. Since its release, critical recognition and periodic covers (e.g. Green Day, Oasis, Weird Al Yankovic, etc.) have kept it alive and screaming — it even closed the London 2012 Olympic Games. Truth be told, it’ll always be around, namely because those same young punks grow up and have similar rambunctious kids. -Tony Hardy
26. Beastie Boys – “Shadrach”
Paul’s Boutique, 1989
Paul’s Boutique isn’t as mature as people think. Upon release, the Beastie Boys’ sophomore masterpiece still contained bulky traces of misogyny and violence in its lyrics, although thankfully none of the rampant homophobia found on Licensed To Ill. “Shadrach” was a sign of the more socially conscious, yet still very fun things to come. And Ad-Rock, Mike D, and especially the late MCA were just starting to figure out that responsibility and rebellion often went hand in hand. “Shadrach” let’s us know that stealing isn’t the same as assault, and that you can still quote the Book of Daniel with a blunt in your mouth. When Sly Stone chanted “Shadrach, Mesach, Abednago” in “Loose Booty”, it was purely for cadence. When the Beasties stole it, it became their own astonishingly accurate metaphor: three Jewish guys who rose above an empire by writing their own rules. This use of biblical imagery as a song’s centerpiece was a hip-hop first, and without it, we wouldn’t have “Jesus Walks” or, just as importantly, the evolved later work of the Beastie Boys themselves. -Dan Caffrey
25. John Coltrane – “A Love Supreme Part 1: Acknowledgment”
A Love Supreme, 1965
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is one of a very few number of jazz albums that everyone has heard before. Its combination of spiritual depth and post-bop intellectuality are initiated on “Part 1: Acknowledgment”, a mantra-driven gateway into a new, expansive world of music, the quartet chanting the album’s title in a way that’ll never leave your head. The album is a part of the Smithsonian’s collection and Rolling Stone’s best albums list, and the four-note theme developed on this shimmering, mesmeric pool of a track. Ashley Kahn’s book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, credits Coltrane’s massive impact on the music world largely to this album, noting that it’s the reason that “jazz fans, rockers and rappers, head-bangers and hip-hoppers all swear their allegiance to him.” -Adam Kivel
24. The Rolling Stones – “Gimme Shelter”
Let It Bleed, 1969
Rape, war, Hell’s Angels, and the Mafia. Few songs conjure such a dreary hodgepodge of shocking albeit common tragedies. But “Gimme Shelter” manages this gruesome feat. The track’s release days after Altamont blindsided audiences in 1969 and its darkness continues to find sinister new meaning with appearances in three separate films by mobster auteur and Rolling Stone’s documentarian, Martin Scorsese. Keith Richard’s ominous intro hints at trouble on the horizon, but Mick Jagger’s napalm burns away any sense of security with one caustic truth: the danger’s already here. It’s not hidden away in foreign lands, where big airplanes transform children into smoldering monsters, but right in the neighborhood, where greasy vice peddlers skulk past your mailbox. There is no shelter, and there can never be peace. Merry Clayton’s accompanying banshee wails and distinctive vocal cracks are a harsh reminder to all flower children that weeds of destruction and violence will never be expunged so long as there’s a wicked demand for misery. In a sad yet poetic turn of events, Clayton’s unbridled howling may have cost her the fetus growing inside her belly, reinforcing the notion that life is fragile when death is “Just a shout away.” -Dan Pfleegor
23. The Beatles – “Tomorrow Never Knows”
Going into the recording sessions for the last song off Revolver, John Lennon allegedly told George Martin that he wanted the track to sound “like a hundred chanting Tibetan monks.” The result is undoubtedly his first psychedelic masterpiece, and a benchmark of The Beatles’ mid-career output. George Harrison’s droning tambura in C major mixed with reverse guitar solos, processed vocals, and looped tape effects create an audible LSD trip that would be copied by just about every band from 1966 to 1975. No longer a live act, “Tomorrow Never Knows” hears the group truly use the studio as an instrument for the first time, providing a vital missing link between their early years and the Sgt. Pepper era. While later albums would expand on the song’s trippy instrumentation, never had The Fab Four sounded more adventurous, yet intensely focused. -Bryant Kitching
22. Pulp – “Common People”
Different Class, 1995
It took over a decade for Pulp’s alloy of post-punk, glam, and disco to grab mainstream attention and acclaim, but the Sheffield sextet finally found its breakthrough with its scathing condemnation. Although the reign of Britpop came to an end as trends inevitably do, “Common People” has maintained a timelessness that escapes other classics because its social message emblemized not just a decade in a specific place but the future it prophesied. As current indie music culture fixates on the ramifications of appropriation, authenticity, and gentrification that arise from “renting a flat above a shop,” the political climate in America is one of Occupy movements and the 1% versus the have-nots. America may not have been paying much attention to Pulp in 1995, but now is the time to outsiders overwhelmed by impotent rage to sing along to this cynical narrative. -Frank Mojica
21. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”
Fear of a Black Planet, 1990 (single released in 1989)
“I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy,” Spike Lee told Time about his search for a signature song for Do the Right Thing, his 1989 joint about escalating racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The track that PE and the Bomb Squad delivered for Rosie Perez to dance to and Radio Raheem to blast from his boombox turned out to be hip-hop’s ultimate political anthem. Equal parts PSA and party, “Fight the Power” rages with Chuck D’s patented sportscaster boom, Flavor Flav’s sidekick antics, and loop upon loop of sampled chaos. Three little words never packed such a punch. -Matt Melis
20. Kate Bush – “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)”
Hounds of Love, 1985
Back in 1985, when EMI began to hype Kate Bush’s groundbreaking LP, Hounds of Love, representatives at the label were horrified at the prospect of promoting a lead single titled, “Deal with God”. They wanted “Cloudbusting”, Bush (justifiably) championed for “…God”, an argument she’d eventually win. However, the single would be retitled, “Running Up that Hill”, and its title on the album and all subsequent releases would be “Running Up that Hill (Deal with God)”.
In a 1992 interview with BBC Radio 1, Bush digressed on the situation, stating: “…we were told that if we kept this title that it would not be played in any of the religious countries, Italy wouldn’t play it, France wouldn’t play it, and Australia wouldn’t play it! Ireland wouldn’t play it, and that generally we might get it blacked purely because it had God in the title.”
It’s annoying how our world can be so pathetic, so prude, and so uncompromising. Granted, it’s just a title, but the song’s implicit themes are far from damning. “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)” preaches nothing but love and understanding. It’s a unifying message on the varying perspectives of gender, the idea of compromising one’s identity for the sake of understanding another’s. “And if I only could/ I’d make a deal with god/ And I’d get him to swap our places,” Bush sings repeatedly in the song’s chorus. She’s yearning for that perspective, so that she and her lover can understand one another, and possibly be happier in that realization.
Bush’s sweeping masterpiece has become a rallying battle hymn for equality. Charged with a volley of ambient rhythms, beats, and synth lines, it’s richly intelligent in design from top to bottom, making it one of the most intellectual pop anthems in music history. To date, despite a string of inspiring classics thereafter, it’s still the English songwriter’s most prevalent track. Sadly enough, this wonderful society of ours remains puzzled by its themes. -Michael Roffman
19. Prince – “When Doves Cry”
Purple Rain, 1984
Purple Rain, Prince’s 1984 soundtrack magnum opus, is chock full of readymade hit singles, most of them clocking in under the 4:30 mark. But who could have predicted that this one — six sparse, tormented minutes of bassless synth-funk, composed by Prince literally overnight — would be the one to change the game, hitting number one, reaching platinum, and edging Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” off the charts for weeks?
Anyone who caught on to that disarmingly simplistic keyboard line and club-ready boom-clap, I guess. Or maybe anyone who really heard Prince’s tortured vocal performance — those inimitable squeals, the multi-tracking in the second verse, that piercing scream at 4:28. Maybe the answer lies in the guitar solo (one of Prince’s best), or those impossibly ‘80s keyboard arpeggios that close out the track. As is, “When Doves Cry” is more than the sum of its sly parts, an eerie, operatic yelp from the purple beyond.
But in typical smash-hit fashion, “When Doves Cry” almost never was: it was a last-minute addition. The rest of the songs had been completed when movie director Albert Magnoli asked Prince to record a song appropriate for a scene depicting parental reflection. Reportedly inspired by high school girlfriend Susan Moonsie, the result is at once fiercely sexy and desperately lonely. “How can you just leave me standing,” Prince pleads in ghostly self-harmony, “alone in a world that’s so cold?” Appropriately, it’s one of the few Purple Rain tracks that Prince recorded without the Revolution, benefiting immeasurably from its sparse arrangement, its wide open cavities. And the lack of bass? Another accident of fate. Prince recorded the track with a bass track, then deemed the song “too conventional,” so he axed it. “Nobody would have the balls to do this,” the Purple One reportedly bragged to an engineer. “You just wait — they’ll be freaking.” And frankly, we still are. -Zach Schonfeld
18. Bob Dylan – “Shelter from the Storm”
Blood on the Tracks, 1975
The early 1970’s found Bob Dylan at odds with fans, critics, labels, and even lovers. A string of poorly received country-tinged albums (Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait), an album consisting of cutting-room-floor tracks (Dylan), and what was essentially a “reunion” album with The Band to give him something to play on his first tour since ’66 (Planet Waves), left everyone wondering where the 60s icon had gone. But something happened between his return to the road and the dissolution of his marriage with Sara Lownds. 1975’s Blood on the Tracks was more than just a return to form, a return of the signature nasal voice, a return to Columbia Records; it was an album full of the most personal, impassioned songs Dylan had ever written. There, right at the end and with no more than three simple chords, Dylan pinned his heart to his sleeve like never before, and crafted one of the most poignant records ever to tackle love and loss: “Shelter from the Storm”.
Struggling with his status as Woodstock-era lion and the end of his marriage forced Dylan to look inward in ways unseen in his catalog to that point. “And now there’s a wall between us,” he sings of – presumably – Sara, “something else been lost/ I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed.” He expresses his own failures as a lover with an ease that connects instantly to anyone who’s looked back on a relationship and seen their missteps. However, unlike most of Blood on the Tracks, there’s a note of optimism throughout, alining heartbreak with love’s redemptive attributes. Dylan sings of broken bonds being retied, of how “beauty walks on a razor’s edge/ someday I’ll make it mine.” His poetics aren’t nearly as intricate as they often are, but it’s the same candor found in the music that lets listeners in to his emotionality, and that signaled Dylan-the-artist’s return. Sometimes you gotta fall low before you can rise high again; this song, both in concept and context, exemplifies that truth. -Ben Kaye
17. Otis Redding – “Try a Little Tenderness”
Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, 1966
Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness” is nothing short of a smoldering, seductive stew of sexuality, however, it took over 30 years and an entirely new arrangement at the hands of producer Isaac Hayes and backing group Booker T. & the MGs to help turn what was once a somewhat schmaltzy, maudlin and tame love song into the spellbinding R&B soul-stomper we now consider. Black artists in the 50s and early 60s who sought to cross-over into larger (read: white) markets often included “Try a Little Tenderness” in their personal songbooks, using it as part of a strategy to reach listeners and consumers, including future Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Years before her ordination, Franklin recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” for her 1962 album, The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin. Upon hearing Franklin’s cover, Sam Cooke added the song to his nightclub repertoire, singing two verses as part of a medley with “For Sentimental Reasons” and “You Send Me”, eventually releasing it on his live Sam Cooke at the Copa album in 1964. Redding was so inspired by Cooke it’s almost no surprise that he chose to cover “Try a Little Tenderness” upon hearing him tackle the number. However, where Cooke’s version is relatively ‘traditional’ and light-hearted, maintaining a restraint, Redding’s interpretation is entirely new and dynamic, abandoning the blasé for pure, raw emotion.
Beginning with a slow, soulful (and somewhat melancholic) melody, provided by the Stax horn section, Redding’s command of “Try a Little Tenderness” leads the song through a series of tempo and melodic changes, all building to an explosive finale punctuated by Redding shouting the words “You’ve got to hold her, squeeze her, never leave her” before vocally stomping the song’s title. Rather than catering to bland, beige trends and styles, Redding followed his own vision, interpreting and performing the song as only he could. History has rewarded him for it too. -Len Comaratta
16. Bruce Springsteen – “Jungleland”
Born to Run, 1975
It’s the young romantic crashing against the soon-to-be dark realist, the finest, and final, display of young Springsteen’s modernist street operas, a ten minute song brimming with the drama and imagery of a feature length film. But the song would be a footnote in his body of work had it not been for the sax solo that Bruce and Clarence Clemons famously took 16 hours to perfect. Clemons’ solo is the bridge between two Bruce’s. The one that surfaces at the end of the elegant three minute solo, singing about the Magic Rat’s crushed big city dreams and nighttime in the lonely silent city, never again sounded the same as the one singing about young kids flashing guitars like switch blades and exploding into rock and roll bands.
Bruce Springsteen will always be New Jersey’s native son, but when he was a young man he had his sights set on the big city. The boys and girls in Born To Run are looking for ways out of their small hometowns; they’re praying and singing, desperate for something more. “Jungleland” is where those hotrod dreams meet the urban reality, where a bunch of young kids travel over the Hudson River, a crossing ripe with metaphor for Springsteen, in search of something bigger.
“Jungleland” is also a hint at what’s to come. It’s fitting that the dying dreams and fading ambulance sirens of “Jungleland” are the last of what we hear from Springsteen for three years, when on Darkness on The Edge of Town, his 1978 album that would in many ways set the new direction of his songwriting for the rest of his career, the young men and women of Born To Run escape only to find out they’re trapped once again. It’s there they discover that you can’t leave your problems behind, but that you carry them with you each step you take. “Jungleland” taught that lesson first, and perhaps best. -Jon Bernstein
15. Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back”
Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, 1969
The Jackson 5’s first widely released single, “I Want You Back”, couldn’t have been a more memorable debut for its almost unbelievably precocious leader. There was no way ten-year-old Michael had actually been through the romantic regrets he was singing about here; indeed, Motown’s in-house team The Corporation originally wrote the track for Gladys Knight & The Pips. Nevertheless, the ebullient frontboy had no problem giving the song all of his already relentless power, making it easy enough to believe him even when he was offering up lines like “Trying to live without your love is one long sleepless night.” Even during the fadeout, he keeps at it, repeating the titular phrase over and again, just to make sure he gets his point across.
But, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child’s most virtuosic performance to its fullest potential. Jermaine, Tito, Marlon, and Jackie back their baby brother’s lead with shimmering pitch-perfection; keyboards flutter, pianos pound, and bass glides next to electric guitar fluidity; and Gene Pello’s snare and Sandra Crouch’s tambourine practically beg the listener to clap along in time. Despite the song’s being more or less about heartache, these things combine for three of the most beatific minutes imaginable, three minutes so addictive that playing them just once through (as opposed to, say, eight or nine times in a row) is rarely a possibility. Would these kids, fresh up out of Gary, Indiana, be one-hit wonders? There was never a chance. -Mike Madden
14. The Knife – “Heartbeats”
Deep Cuts, 2003 (single released in 2002)
Few electronic songs have the organic warmth and accessibility of The Knife’s “Heartbeats”, reaching the apex of pop songwriting in its fluorescent earworm glory. It took two years from the song’s 2002 release to find a massive audience in its world re-release, and its haunting beauty has already had a massive impact in its brief existence. The tune has been borrowed by handfuls of acts, but no cover version is more prominent than Jose Gonzalez’s heart-wrenching acoustic take, a massive hit in its own right. The song’s power even allowed them to record their following disc, the epic Silent Shout, as their decision to let Gonzalez’s version be used in ads for Sony got them an influx of money that they desperately needed: “It made it possible to do quite a lot,” vocalist Karen Dreijer Andersson said in an interview with Pitchfork. “But at the same time, it’s dirty money.”
The song similarly allowed The Knife the opportunity to be themselves. Their early material didn’t gain much critical or commercial reception, so the brother-sister duo wrote a batch of pop-friendly tunes in order to build the attention their music deserved. “It’s a little emotional and fun and it clashes with most things out there,” the band noted, perfectly describing the song’s ability to hit every pop note while retaining their ephemeral otherness, its mystifying talk of “hands from above” and “ten weeks of perfect tunes” floating over Olof Dreijer’s twinkling, swaying production.
There’s something coldly smoldering about the song, its chorus memorable in any instrumental setting. While there was a time in which Gonzalez’s sparse cover grew the greater share of attention, Andersson’s hyper-Gaga weirdness and the duo’s expansive musical palett (which has reached even into opera) have forced the original into its rightful place of prominence; “Heartbeats” is simultaneously one of the purest pop moments since the millenium, an emotive thunderstorm that refuses to be contained. -Adam Kivel
13. Led Zeppelin – “Dazed and Confused”
Led Zeppelin, 1969
There are four moments in the beginning of the song in which to let your head fall slack and gaze upwards and look upon Led Zeppelin: The first three chromatic notes John Paul Jones plays on bass, Jimmy Page’s first two sustained guitar notes, Robert Plant screaming his first words, or John Bonham when he counts in that half-time feel with a fill. And then there’s still six more minutes of “Dazed and Confused” to go.
By the numbers, this is kush Zeppelin — most notably it boasts some of the best Bonzo drumming (that triplet work during the solo!) and most thankfully not once does Plant start screaming about bustles in hedgerows or Bilbo Baggins. Instead, he flips a mean bird on the kiss-off line, “Will your tongue wag so much when I send you the bill?” More of those bons mots should have abounded in the Zeppelin lyric book.
After a tunnel-vision psych breakdown with Page famously using a violin bow to tease out feedback, Page, Jones, and Bonham set everything on fire with a proto-metal jam that literally screeches to a halt when Page returns with the first guitar lick. At this point, Plant has nothing left to do but scream, and finally it’s a scream in the Zeppelin catalogue that feels earned because of the music underneath. Most of the song fell off the back of an older and more sincere blues truck, but crime actually pays when Zep is doing the deed. -Jeremy D. Larson
12. Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On”
What’s Going On, 1971
For over a decade from the late ’50s to the late ’60s, Marvin Gaye was one of Motown’s brightest voices, churning out single after single of pop-infused R&B about pretty girls and broken hearts alongside the likes of The Supremes and the Four Tops. But after the Watts Riots of 1965, Gaye found himself increasingly uncomfortable with making this kind of escapist pop while the world slowly circled the drain toward madness and strife. By 1971, Gaye had at last decided to act upon his growing social concerns and approached label head Barry Gordy to ask him to do a protest song; Gordy immediately called the idea “ridiculous.” Without the label or the executive’s support, Gaye entered the Hitsville studio in June 1970 to begin work on perhaps the most iconic protest song ever recorded, “What’s Going On”, enlisting a group of non-Motown musicians and collaborators while handling production for himself.
Gaye’s decision to go solo wasn’t just a breakthrough in the Motown model; it was the defining point in his personal awakening to the evils of the world and his commitment to fighting them. A poignant and unwavering look at inner city brutality and injustice, this is not a pop song from a protest musician, nor a protest song from a pop star. This is a song that makes accessible and consumable the especially poignant and compelling topics of war and suffering while blurring the line of where a protest song ends and a genuine love song begins (which explains how it sold two million copies and earned Gaye his second Billboard Hot 100 hit). The track eventually became the emotional and moral core of the eponymous 1971 LP, a “concept” record that explored the Vietnam War with equal parts vitriol and tranquility while furthering Gaye’s emergence as a true citizen of the world.
Doesn’t seem so “ridiculous” after all, is it Mr. Gordy? -Chris Coplan
11. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its accompanying video marked a turning point in rock history: Finally and inexplicably, commercially unviable music became commercially viable. Kurt Cobain was a music nerd with a record collection that included everything from Flipper to The Raincoats. Decades of outsider rock and pop were filtered through his songwriting, and he often covered obscure songs in concert (thus introducing them to a newer, rabid audience) and namedropped influences in practically every interview. Cobain felt what he sang about. He was disaffected and moody.
So are his songs. So is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. But he didn’t write music to be showered in praise, to be exhibited like starlet on MTV, to be overanalyzed as some flannel-wearing messiah. He just wanted to write some rock songs, and his reactions to the band’s mass popularity were in line with this perspective and his general apathy toward fame.
Cobain hated being popular, which adds to the irony of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” becoming a generation-defining hit. The song rails against the absurdity of entertainment and the “rich and famous” lifestyle that comes with it, all which Cobain eventually obtained despite his attempts to eschew it. Its juxtaposition of muted notes (verses) and blaring power chords (chorus) drew from the theatrical guitarwork of bands like Sonic Youth and Pixies, while producer Butch Vig’s radio-friendly sheen further increased the song’s accessibility. One high-school gym performance later, and Nirvana was the biggest band in the world. -Jon Hadusek
10. Radiohead – “Idioteque”
Kid A, 2000
“The piece puzzled me at first. I had never heard anything like it.”
That’s one of the first computer-music composers, Paul Landsky, commenting on Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, a song based on a repeated sample from his own 1973 piece “mild unde leise”. The piece was written on analog punch cards fed into chain printers prescribing specific noises to Princeton’s IBM computer. Jonny Greenwood grew fascinated by a four-chord progression that lasts for about ten seconds early on in the piece. Influenced, he hit the band’s studio to record 50 minutes of improvised music. Soon after, he handed the recordings over to an overwhelmed Thom Yorke, who was ultimately entranced by the few seconds of tape containing Landsky’s sample. The Radiohead game of “Telephone” had begun; “Idioteque” was about to be written.
Radiohead have always been relevant because of their ability to cull inaccessible influences, chew them up, and spit them out in their own demented form of pop. They’re curators in the greatest sense, turning their passions for strange sounds, avant-garde experimentalism, and ornate arrangements into fuel for the mainstream fire. They bring music’s fringe splinters to the forefront, giving unsung musical endeavors a new, popular home. In that regard, “Idioteque” is perhaps the band’s highest achievement. It follows a long line of composers and songwriters imitating, emulating, and building upon their contemporaries.
Remarkably, Radiohead were able to turn an auditory experiment into a vital pop artifact, transforming one of Landsky’s forgotten trials into something he himself could hardly comprehend. The composer has explained that the chord progression sampled in “Idioteque” consists of various spacings and inversions of an E flat major seventh chord. Originally, he was experimenting with a chord from Wagner’s opera Tristan un Isolde, studying the connections between variations and inversions of the same chord, while watching a subtle melody form in their combination. Radiohead saw another piece to their schizophrenic puzzle.
Mechanical drums shimmer with ominous danger. Dissonant electronic moans, pulled from Arthur Krieger’s “Short Piece”, fill the open space. The drums form a progressively chaotic rhythm. Yorke howls over Landsky’s sample as if it were a guitar riff. Programmed sounds refuse to inherit the organic qualities of Yorke’s falsetto. It’s all one mechanical blur. Yorke is afraid of what might become of his race as it builds and builds towards something so far removed from humanity, that the only way out is to hide away in a bunker while it all implodes on itself.
“Idioteque” builds off the past, pushes towards the future, and warns against what may become of us if we rush there. Radiohead boils these paranoid feelings down to a series of programmed musical phrases–a single chord that automatically mutates, content in its twisted evolution. With “Idioteque”, the band creates an emotionally rich, desperately cynical song engulfed by the same technological apocalypse it fears. The horror of sounds generated by punching out holes from a sheet of paper takes on new meaning. As we listen, we dance to rhythms void of any trace of human life; a bunch of idiots marching to the beat of a drum we programmed by mistake. However convoluted the sentiment, Radiohead nailed it. -Drew Litowitz
09. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
Ready to Die, 1994
“This album is dedicated to the teachers that told me that I’d never amount to nothing,” Chris Wallace says in the spoken-word intro of “Juicy”, some real talk before rapping in his persona The Notorious B.I.G., “to all the people that lived above the buildings I was hustlin’ in front of, calling the police on me when I was just trying to make some money to feed my daughter.” He carries on and finishes with a laugh and a celebratory, “It’s all good, baby baby!” Wallace proved the haters wrong. He made it. And Ready to Die, particularly its lead single “Juicy”, was his rags-to-riches story.
Sadly, the debut album’s title would eerily presage his fate. Wallace’s second and final studio solo album, Life After Death, would be released shortly after his fatal shooting in 1997. Among his small-but-concentrated discography of stellar songs, “Juicy” feels the most timeless: it was the first chart-topping single for Wallace and its lyrics show him at his most sentimental and personal. Minus some mild curses, “Juicy” is a song fit for your mom.
Hip-hop, especially during its fraught gangsta-rap era in the early-to-mid-’90s, had plenty of tough talk and ambition. “Juicy” had those qualities, plus something most other ’90s gangsta-rap singles didn’t have: heart. “It was all a dream/ I used to read Word Up! magazine/ Salt ‘n’ Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine,” Biggie rhymes in the opening verses. “Hangin’ pictures on my wall/ every Saturday/ Rap Attack/ Mr. Magic/ Marley Marl.” Wallace could lift up listeners with warm nostalgia as quickly as he could bring them low with memories of his impoverished childhood in Brooklyn. “We used to fuss/ when the landlord dissed us,” he raps. “No heat/ wonder why Christmas missed us.”
It’s no surprise, then, his body of work is starting to make its way into the annals of American culture. One “Juicy” couplet– “Birthdays was the worst days/ now we drink champagne when we thirst-ay”– is recited in the award-winning Off-Broadway play A Huey P. Newton Story. Biggie’s career, life and lyrics are studied by hip-hop academics across the world. The rapper is exalted as a fallen hero by hardcore rap listeners, mainstream dabblers and almost everyone in between.
It’s a legacy The Notorious B.I.G. in “Juicy” probably couldn’t have imagined in 1994 when he snarls, “You never thought hip-hop would take it this far” in response to critics who dismissed hip-hop as a fleeting fad. “Juicy” proved that it wasn’t. Which is why it’s such a shame that Biggie never made it to see hip-hop beyond the “this far” he mentioned. -Paul de Revere
08. Aretha Franklin – “Respect”
“Written as a ballad by Otis Redding, “Respect” was originally intended for Speedo Sims and the Singing Demons. After Sims, who would go on to become Redding’s road manager, failed to nail a solid recording, Redding altered the tempo and recorded the song himself. Releasing it on his third album, Otis Blue, in the summer of 1965, Redding achieved moderate success with “Respect”, charting at #5 on the R&B charts.
After a couple of years suffering the slings and arrows of moderate to sub-par cover versions, “Respect” finally got its due when Atlantic Records executive and producer Jerry Wexler brought the song to the attention of Aretha Franklin. Knowing that Redding had achieved minor success in the white marketplace with his version, Wexler believed that with Franklin’s vocal strength and ability, “Respect” had the potential to be a big crossover hit. Slightly altering the song, Wexler inserted a bridge into Redding’s composition as well as adding a sax solo, courtesy of King Curtis. Though no lyrical changes were made to the body of the song, Franklin’s version includes the addition of the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” chorus as well as the “Sock it to me…” refrain sung by Franklin’s back-up singers, her sisters, Carolyn and Erma. Working with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Franklin recorded “Respect”on February 14, 1967, including it on her Atlantic Records debut I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You, released the following month.
When “Respect” was released as a single in April 1967, the difference between Franklin’s version and Redding’s couldn’t be more apparent. Redding’s performance is a bit funkier and bluesier than Franklin’s more buoyant take, which benefited from Atlantic’s slicker production. However, production aside, the real genius lies in Franklin’s delivery. Where Redding often stagnated his phrasing slightly between verses, Franklin’s impassioned rendering of the exact same lyrics takes “Respect” away from the pleading theatrics of a man demanding respect, both literally and euphemistically, from his woman, and converts the song into a declaration of feminine independence and personal strength. Recognizing and respecting Franklin’s “ownership” of his song, two months after Franklin released her single, Redding, while introducing his own performance of “Respect” at the Monterrey Pop Festival, described “Respect” as the song “that little girl done stole from me.”
Topping both the pop and R&B charts, “Respect” also became Franklin’s first top ten single in the UK, opening the doors to a wider international audience. Eventually becoming the performer’s signature song, what was once a plea from man to his significant other, in Franklin’s hands became a rallying cry for women and the feminist movement. Jerry Wexler best described Franklin’s cover of “Respect” as “global in its influence, with overtones of the civil-rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity.” -Len Comaratta
07. The Rolling Stones – “Sympathy for the Devil”
Beggars Banquet, 1968
When the Rolling Stones go on tour next year to celebrate their 50th season in hell, they won’t need an introduction. But as Mick Jagger pumps his maracas, he will likely ask for one anyway. Won’t you guess his name?
The lyrics were Jagger’s, but the music was Richards’: “I was just trying to figure out whether it should be a samba or a goddamn folk song,” said the guitarist. Ironically, “Sympathy For The Devil” turned out to be a samba with the timeless legacy of a folk song. Like Lucifer was there for Anastasia and the Kennedys, “Sympathy For The Devil” has had an eerie omnipresence in our cultural history. It divined Patti Smith and it destroyed Guns N’ Roses. It has been linked to both Wagnerian symphonies and Tropic Thunder scenes. The song, about the inescapability of death and the devil, is played at weddings, but never at funerals.
In 1968, at the Olympic Studios in England, the recordings for Beggars Banquet occurred across a narrow body of water from the civil unrest in Paris. A curious Francophile and former-exile, Mick Jagger, wrote the lyrics to the song as an interloper in the midst of a youth rebellion. Like Mikhail Bulgakov’s “foreign professor” in The Master & Margarita, Jagger lurked through the City of Lights when it was ablaze with violence and fear. The palace was under siege. The president exiled himself. Graffiti was everywhere (as it was scandalously featured on the cover of Banquet), and the revolutionary slogans were punchy yet surreal: “Je Suis Marxiste … Tendence Groucho” – “I am a Marxist … of the Groucho variety.”
The tragedy and the wit of that period inspired the Stones at a time when they were trying to, as Richards would say, “get back to basics” in both a musical sense and in their ruffled personal lives. Banquet peeled away the psychedelic viscosity of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Acoustic-driven and crisply arranged (thanks to a cassette-recording trick that Richards began to use), Banquet featured direct rock ‘n’ roll songs, like the unmistakably political, “Street Fighting Man”, and the biblical blues of “Prodigal Son”.
But “Sympathy” was something different. “The first time I ever heard the song,” Charlie Watts said, “Mick was playing it at the front door of a house I lived in at the time … he played it entirely on his own, the sun was going down – and it was fantastic.” In a sense, “Sympathy” was like Jagger’s squawk-job imitation of Edith Piaf. Ever the gangly, brooding Englishman, “Sympathy” draws to light Jagger’s fascination with Faustian pacts. And what is more Faustian than ‘la vie en rose’ – life in rosy hues – a beautiful city crumbling for its freedom?
On a personal scale, Jagger and the Stones experienced the pre-’68 Faustian-French life during their exiled years in the South of France and it changed their sound forever. Post-France (and for the most part, post-Brian Jones), “Sympathy” invoked an emotional presence not heard before. They eschewed popular song structures and embraced Latin and African dance rhythms, primitive grooves, and breezy woo-hoos.
“Sympathy” ushers in cultural erosions: a history that culminates and collapses with kings and queens, Baudelaires, Bulgakovs, blitzkriegs, and Brunis swirled into one big, effervescent glass that goes down with some courtesy, some sympathy, and some taste. –Sarah Grant
06. The Velvet Underground – “Sister Ray”
White Light/White Heat, 1968
The Velvet Underground may have released songs with more radio play and crossover potential, but “Sister Ray” is a rock ‘n roll revolution, a 17 minute avant-garde, improvisational rampage that is the forefather of countless sub-genres. Coming off of the legendary Velvet Underground & Nico and cutting ties with Andy Warhol, the quartet had to respond to their growing reputation somehow, and they did so violently with the expansive White Light/ White Heat, and “Sister Ray” in particular.
Recorded in a single take, the droning noise rock allegedly was so irking to the recording’s engineer that he walked out of the room. In the documentary, Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart, the frontman explained that “the engineer said, ‘I don’t have to listen to this,” got up, and left. The result is raw, unadulterated rock glory, Reed and Sterling Morrison churning out modal guitar chords as John Cale pounds at a distorted organ like the world is burning.
The freeform intensity of “Sister Ray” is a predecessor of punk in its raw antagonism, a child of bebop jazz in its conversational improvisation, a root of noise rock in its wall of atonal sound. Reed’s stream of consciousness descriptions of subversion of norms in every form embodies rock to its very core. “The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear,” Reed once explained.
Lines like “Too busy sucking on a ding-dong” are in-your-face challenges as much as realist beat poetry. Without the droning, choppy chord intensity of The Velvet Underground, bands like The Modern Lovers’ wouldn’t exist (and frontman Jonathan Richman credits Reed, Cale & Co. with a song called “Velvet Underground”, in which he briefly quotes “Sister Ray”). No Wave bands similarly relied on the song’s structure-denying intensity and Maureen Tucker’s primal rhythms, leading to covers by bands like Suicide. The album comes at a point directly after the band were sponsored by Vox, and access to the company’s then revolutionary effects pedals is the stuff of gear fetishism and shoegaze lore.
Even for an intense artist like Lou Reed, there are few songs as catastrophically aggressive and purposively difficult in his catalog as this (save maybe Metal Machine Music, though the “songs” on that album don’t have the focus that “Sister Ray” does). When a man is shot in the song’s narrative, Reed’s response is incredibly wry, informing dark lyricists for years to come: “Aw, you shouldn’t do that/ Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?” There isn’t a moment of escape anywhere to be found in “Sister Ray”, and the thrumming energy is such that you’ll never even try to look for one, instead reveling in the destruction of barriers and definitions of what rock ‘n’ roll is and can be. -Adam Kivel
05. The Beatles – “A Day in the Life”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967
Unlike so many entries on this list, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” did not stumble into greatness by chance. This was the design of a band that just seemed to know something no one else did; they were in that sweet spot of their career, the kind that tends to escape bands before they have any idea it had even arrived, before Yoko, before any deaths (real or mythical), before the blisters formed on Ringo’s fingers. It was a time when John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s differing methods could both flourish and even coexist perfectly on one song before inevitably growing too big for each other, clashing and killing the band within three years. They had arrived at their peaks of both ability and self-awareness, and knowing perfectly well that this chapter couldn’t last forever, they realized it was time they laid their teenybopper-heartthrob-icon role to rest for good and aimed for high art.
As we now know, they would reach heights previously considered impossible for pop music with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and “A Day in the Life” was the immaculate closing argument: the most ambitious track on the album that redefined the word “ambition”. McCartney delivers his strongest Paul McCartney melody of the album, and Lennon sings about a man who “blew his mind out in a car”, blowing listeners’ minds out the backs of their skulls in the process. Musically, “A Day in the Life” is a progged-out requiem–turned-Top-40-bait-turned-apocalyptic-prophecy; lyrically, it’s a series of anecdotes that simply speak to the inherent morbidity and mundanity of the human condition.
And then there are the orchestral swells, which marked the first time in modern pop music history that anyone even remotely as popular as the Beatles – or popular at all, really – had considered the idea that melodically devoid noise could actually be useful, no less transcendental, in song. More surprising still is that it was McCartney, the one who took the most measures so as not to alienate his band’s fanbase, who was largely responsible for their inclusion. These two separate crescendos as performed by 40 outsourced musicians became the origin of art rock, which itself would go on to develop off in the peripheries of rock and pop music despite being derived from the most popular band ever.
So, it was only fitting that this song end on the densest, biggest sounding chord possible. That absurdly sustained E-major of three pianos hits like an exclamation point placed precisely at the apex of an era, or like the jarring boom that a microphone makes when dropped on a wooden stage after a stunning performance, when the only thing left to give to a totally confounded audience is one last massive, assertive, punctuating note. -Steven Arroyo
04. Michael Jackson – “Man in the Mirror”
Michael Jackson didn’t write this song, and I don’t think he ever could have. Not in 1998. Maybe in 1984 if Lionel Richie had elbowed him a bit harder, but never in 1988 could Jackson have put a pen to a paper and wrote the words, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” When Jackson looked in his bathroom mirror at his Neverland Ranch in 1987, just before Bad was released, he saw his own note stuck to his bathroom mirror that read “100 Million” — the number of copies of Bad he wanted sell. The Jackson that was reflected in that mirror was both a shrewd businessman selling his name-rights and hoarding Beatles songs while making millions, and a fragile hermetic spending his time in hyperbaric chambers trying to recreate Xanadu and managing a steady regression to his childhood. The late ‘80s were thorny for Jackson.
Above it all, both at the time and in his legacy, Jackson was a performer. He belonged on the stage which was one of the only places in his life that made sense to him. Off the stage he’d surround himself with all manners of eccentric company — pet chimpanzees and boa constrictors hardly chief among them — that distracted him until he finally was back to making and performing music. “Man in the Mirror” was handed to him by Quincy Jones through songwriters Glenn Ballard and Siedah Garret. For Jackson, whose distance from reality was by now becoming extra-terrestrial, the only way he could sing about something that personal and introspective was if someone wrote it for him. Even if Jackson managed to trick some fans into thinking that he can write lyrics that weren’t pulled from a Tony Scott movie, there’s a felicitous weight to the song knowing that it was handed to him from a stranger.
Not since maybe Dylan had there been a “message” song that didn’t seem mawkish or sanctimonious. Those divas like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion would try — but “Man in the Mirror” is the yet uncrested high-water mark of Adult Contemporary Pop. Its glossy production by Quincy Jones is complete with gradual crescendo, gospel choir, and The Key Change, while Jackson’s vocals oscillate between a legato stroll on “They follow the pattern of the wind ya see” and a determined staccato grit on “That’s why I’m starting with me.” Its very blueprint is designed to reach as many hearts as possible and squeeze the hell out of them. It doesn’t couch its message in riddles or reward the listener being able to dissect its meaning — its laid bare and it couldn’t be easier to assimilate.
“Do you want to make the world a better place?” Sure I do, buddy, just as much as I want to laugh your haughty platitude off the stage. “Then take a look at yourself and make a change.” I — shit. So that’s where the onus is. I know about that extra second I spend lingering at the mirror in the morning: a little ego, a little anxiety, a little fear. But I can’t linger too long, I’m too self-reflexive. What if I find something wrong or start to doubt what might be right? What if my “100 Million” post-it note isn’t distracting me anymore? What if I’m just a slacktivist masquerading as a selfless contributor to society, thinking that by signing online petitions I “really care” and am helping those who are less fortunate than I? What if I don’t want to change my ways? What do I even want? Michael Jackson just wanted the world to be a better place and thought that maybe by starting small we could do it. So, even if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for Michael — it’s what he didn’t even know he wanted until it was staring right back at him. -Jeremy D. Larson
03. Bob Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone”
Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
By the time Bob Dylan released “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, there was little question that he knew just what he was doing as a songwriter – his catalog already included folk stunners like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” as well the surreal sweep of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”. What separated “Rolling Stone” was its brute force. From the neck-snapping snare shot at the beginning to the fading harmonica at the end, the song was all about rattling its listener’s every notion of what a song could be.
Emerging at a time of creative tumult for Dylan (“a very draggy situation,” he later called it), “Rolling Stone” originally took shape as a ten-plus-page piece of “vomit.” Eventually, though, Dylan trimmed his material down to a more conservative length and wound up at Columbia Records’ Studio A alongside the likes of guitarist Mike Bloomfield, pianist Paul Griffin, drummer Bobby Gregg, and bassist Joe Macho, Jr., not to mention unexpected organist Al Kooper. Fifteen takes later, one of rock’s most implacable 45s had been recorded, proving once and for all that Dylan had no real peers – not in the world of rock, which he was now changing seemingly by the second, and not in the world of folk, which he had been deserting slowly since January 1964’s The Times They Are a-Changin’.
How does it feel? “Rolling Stone” takes aim at one Miss Lonely who’s encountered a not-so-simple twist of fate; formerly of “the finest school,” she’s now “scrounging for [her] next meal.” But while most listeners at first find the song to be a put-down to its subject, it’s actually more like a wake-up call. By the end, after four verses, many more internal rhymes, and brief appearances from Napoleon, jugglers, clowns, and “the mystery tramp,” Dylan’s aphoristic edification takes over: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose / You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.” If there is any cynicism in the song, it’s rooted in clairvoyance.
Much has been made of “Rolling Stone”‘s six-minute length – most of the other high-charting singles of its day barely hit three minutes. But looking at the song in any such finite terms shrouds its depth. What might be the true magic of “Rolling Stone” is that, even while Dylan’s every word is bellowed loud and clear, you can never quite get to the bottom of it all. There are enough images – but also enough typical Dylan ambiguity – for the song to morph ever so slightly with each play, depending on the listener’s mood, the time of day, etc. It might be hard to quantify the exact extent of the song’s influence on modern music probably because it’s too great to be assessed at all. But it’s never a challenge to hear, and sometimes even feel, the revolution. -Mike Madden
02. Talking Heads – “Once In a Lifetime”
Remain In Light, 1981
He’s tailored his suits so many times that it’s almost incomprehensible to reduce David Byrne to just one identity. Yet it’s his repetitive preaching on Remain in Light‘s immortalized single that’s haunted us for decades past — specifically one question: “How did I get here?”
For Talking Heads, the breadcrumbs of “Once in a Lifetime” trail back to producer Brian Eno. The English musical wunderkind had already produced two albums with the group — More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) and Fear of Music (1979) — but it was his creative insight behind Remain in Light that went on to redefine their sound altogether. He pushed the New York collective out of its comfort zone by turning their ears to trending genres like Afro-beat and insisting upon more improvisational techniques whilst recording.
Said techniques, however, led to a mindfuck of a process, especially for “Once in a Lifetime”. Structurally, the song acts as a scrapbook of ideas that all stemmed from ultra creative minds. Working off a cyclical two-bar groove, which Tina Weymouth credits Chris Frantz for writing during one of the band’s many extraneous jams, Eno orchestrated the recording in such a mismatched manner that it’s a wonder he walked out of the studio alive. He tracked each member in isolation, pieced the song together from an alternate rhythm count in his head, and triggered a new lyrical approach for Byrne.
Though, that latter attribute brought all this chaos together. Drawing from his work with Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne became fully entranced by the album’s collection of radio preachers, while also leaning on spontaneous vocal exercises he’d practiced during his retreat to Africa.”I’d get myself worked up, pacing back and forth, breathing in synch with the preacher,” Byrne details the process in his latest book, How Music Works, “phrases would come into my head and I’d jot them down as quickly as possible. I maybe went off topic once or twice.”
Thematically, “Once in a Lifetime” discusses the unstoppable force that is life, and how it’s destined to always surge ahead, despite anyone’s regrets, successes, or mistakes. Byrne’s use of anaphoric lyricism injects this pseudo sense of authority throughout, which can be unnerving, or comedic, or heartbreaking, or however one interprets it. The song’s amorphous qualities evolve with each listen, which is what makes it so impacting. Coupled with Eno’s scattershot web of minimalistic instrumentation, the whole thing exudes enough extraterrestrial charm to last forever. As Frantz told NPR, “If I hear it on the car radio it still gives me the chills 20 years later because it’s that good.”
But it all comes back to that one line: “How did I get here?” It’s such a persistent, nagging question. Whether it’s related to an insignificant moment of clarity or humanity’s existence altogether, it’ll forever gnaw on our minds as this unexplainable enigma. However, there’s something to be said of that line and the song itself. Given its history, the track could be construed as a fluke, conjured up in such a way that it’s almost mythical how it even worked. Only, that’s what makes it so startling and awe-inspiring: It’s a portrait of aural fate that defies any sense of logic. It’s as if something wanted this to exist and it always would. Chills yet? -Michael Roffman