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100 Greatest Songs of All Time: 50-1

Agree, disagree, but the odds are high you worship these tracks as much as we do

The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time, artwork by Steven Fiche
The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time, artwork by Steven Fiche
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    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)”

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    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.

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    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”

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    “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”

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    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”

    Thriller, 1982

    “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”

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    “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”

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    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”

    Discovery, 2001

    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)”

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    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”

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    Paranoid, 1970

    “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”

    Easter, 1978

    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
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