Aug 12 07
Originally posted autumn 2006.
Despite clemency requests through official channels, emotional pleadings for mercy, and cries from all quarters of “Oh, dear God, make it stop,” I hereby present my 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s. A couple prefatory remarks, and then we’ll get down on it:
First, because I don’t feel any pressure to compete with a Pitchfork (may-they-reign-forever) feature, this will be a much less, shall we say, adventurous list than my 1960s one. Also, since they didn’t take all the good songs first on this go-round, it will be a more obvious one. As such, it only contains songs that I personally love the hell out of, whatever their artistic merit or setting-the-stage-for-modern-indie-rock cred.
On a similar tip, “greatest” is of course a totally subjective adjective. These are my greatest songs. Don’t like them? Go make your own damn list.
Structurally, I only included one song per artist. This is because some artists, like say David Bowie, could have a top-hundred-songs-of-the-70s all to themselves. So if you come across a song you think totally sucks and shouldn’t even be near these rarified precincts, just substitute a David Bowie, Rolling Stones, or Clash song. They would almost certainly have taken the spot if allowed. Oh, and the order this time is very precisely calibrated. Position is a value judgment. If your favorite band is low on the list, ha ha they suck. (Well, no. Then they’d be off the list. But still.) And I’m only doing five at a time this time, apparently because I want to drag it out agonizingly. My write-ups are slightly longer, though, if that’s any consolation.
Finally, a word about my blind spots. While I dearly love to project an all-world-knowledge-at-my-fingertips image, there are vast tracts of the music world I remain largely unfamiliar with. Heavy metal, reggae, country, jazz, krautrock, and anything from outside the English-speaking world are mostly given token nods here. This is very much a rock & roll list. So be it.
Now, let’s all enjoy a good laugh at the first thing on the list, shall we?
Oh, one more prefatory remark I’d meant to make. I’m listing the format the songs were originally released in, not where you can find them now. You’re all adults and can figure out how to use Allmusic, Amazon, iTunes, and Soulseek. Reissues come and go, but the original release is forever.
100. Bachman-Turner Overdrive “Takin’ Care of Business”
Bachman-Turner Overdrive II, 1973
Yeah, what? It’s — well, it’s fun. It comes on the radio, and even though you know it’s dumb, cheesy, overblown corporate rock, you turn it up a little bit, and bounce in your seat, and maybe keep time on the steering wheel. It was still early enough in the decade that the production hadn’t glossed the energy out of it, and that wet drum-shuffle sound just gallops along. Mostly, though, I’d have to say it’s the piano. After about 1975, you never hear good old-fashioned honky-tonk piano in a rock & roll song unless the band is being comically retro, or Billy Joel. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were better at their pianos (and scarier) than Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore at their guitars, but because John Lennon played rhythm guitar instead of piano, rock has gradually left the poor old Steinway behind. Keyboardists today want to be Brian Eno and apply “texture,” leaving energy to the rhythm section. Even though the piano — check your fourth-grade music-class orchestra diagrams — is a rhythm instrument. But back to BTO. The song’s about joining the hedonistic life of the rock star, dropping out of the annoying real jobs and picking up a second-hand guitar. Actually, Randy, chances are you’ll end up having to go straight back to the suit and tie, but way to encourage the competition. It can’t be a coincidence that the most unrealistic image of the rock & roll life is also the most giddy fun.
99. Patti Smith “Dancing Barefoot”
(Ivan Kral/Patti Smith)
All right, finally, some credibility to the list! (And with that, I’m done addressing the cred/lack of cred in these choices. Up yours, indie snob that lives in the back of my head!) Patti Smith occupies a strange place in the rock & roll pantheon: lyrics pretentious enough for any prog-rocker, but her mystic voodoo jive is in the service of stripped-down chords, chunky riffs and the leaden New York art-punk beat. She self-consciously cultivated a marble-cool shaman-poet persona, half Witch of Endor and half James Dean, and helped to define punk as a writer before issuing one of the first classic LPs of the stuff. Punk only in the garage-band sense, though, without the speed-fueled adrenaline of the MC5 or the aggressive sheets of noise of the Stooges, and more soggily literary than either. She could both chant side-long earth-mother melanges and ride the charts with a Springsteen song, but this captures her at her leanest and best: the lyrics are still a big gooey quasi-religious feminist mess, but it’s true rather than provocative, and the music is as straight-up rock & roll as she ever managed to get. Her half-sobbing voice on the chorus brings to mind religious ecstasy as well as the more earthly kind, and the free-verse recital at the end neither overstays its welcome nor makes people who know real poetry wince. And that might be her highest achievement in rock.
98. The Who “Baba O’Riley”
Who’s Next, 1971
First, this was so not the first real use of synthesizers as a defining element in rock music. Silver Apples, the United States of America, and the Nice can walk away with those prizes. And the backstory about how Pete came up with the synth line — he punched his guru Baba Yaga’s vital stats into a sequencer — is vaguely interesting for gearheads, but it’s got nothing to do with the song. Which is one of the most lovely surprises of classic rock radio. The Who were the epitome of Youth in the 60s. Not just the “hope I die before I get old” chestnut, but the sheer exuberance of their 60s singles, the awkward callowness of Tommy, the adolescent humor of “A Quick One While He’s Away,” and the common youthful confusion between black American music and increased volume. But with Who’s Next, they matured. Slightly. “Baba O’Riley” is notable for being just about the first externally-focused song (that wasn’t funny) that Pete ever wrote, as the lyrics take on the perspective of an older, working-class couple that is bewildered and not very pleased by the wide-sweeping youth-cultural change of the 60s. The other half of the coin, of course, is the last track on the album, but this one actually does a better job of showcasing the Who’s bombastic new sound, a continual rise to peak after peak, with guests Nicky Hopkins and Dave Arbus adding a more civilized European sheen — though without compromising the pummeling force — to the overwhelming hard rock of the greatest power trio (plus Roger Daltrey) of all time.
97. The Allman Brothers Band “Melissa”
(Steve Alaimo/Gregg Allman)
Eat a Peach, 1972
It’s Duane’s last song. Not actually his literal last song — that’s still only on vinyl, dammit. (Good, though. “Dearest I Wonder” on Bobby Whitlock’s Raw Velvet, 1972. Seek it out.) But his fingerprints are all over it; he helped Gregg shape it way back in 1967, and it’s the finest ballad by the band that bears his name, the band he and his brother led to transform American rock & roll from something reactive, wanting to be the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, to something active, something that dug deep into its own native soil, into the deep country, blues, soul, and jazz roots of the American South and transformed them into a new and blistering kind of hard rock. Of course, “Melissa” isn’t hard rock at all; it’s an elegant hobo ballad, half country-rock and half country-soul, with blues changes like Arthur Alexander used to work, and Dickie Betts slips and slides all around it, making a kind of halo out of his guitar lines, flirting with transcendence. He was never the prodigal genius that Duane was, but here he almost reaches for those heights, in a song that is both a magnificently simple elegy for the dead bandmember and a universal cry of loneliness, regret and heartache. “Crossroads, will you ever let him go” is one of the great opening lines in, hell, in all of literature, as far as I’m concerned, nailing so perfectly a certain remorseful desperation that everyone knows, and which the stereotypical Allman Brothers fan stereotypically drinks to forget. There’s a tear in this beer.
96. Human League “Being Boiled”
(Ian Craig Marsh/Philip Oakey)
David Bowie famously called this song the sound of the future, and it’s always startling how prescient he could be. It’s the first English pop song to be produced entirely with synthesizer and voice, predicting three generations of synth-pop, techno and (god) IDM. Of course, “pop” is a relative term; it didn’t do much to the charts, and its vaguely Nietzschean lyrics about boiling children alive and listening to the voice of Buddha, intoned in an icy monotone by a Kraftwerk-biting Philip Oakey, weren’t exactly calibrated to win over the hearts and minds of the average Bay City Rollers fan. It’s deeply post-punk, even though the synthesized throbs and loops are warmer and more inviting than the usual jagged guitar shards; but if this evokes the kind of futuristic urban nightlife usually conjured up by early synthpop, it’s one in which every shadow hides a skulking psychopath and the city lights are just as likely to blind you to your death as to give a sense of sophisticated cool. They’d go on to conquer charts and the hearts of easily-swayed pop kids in the MTV era, but before they acquired the female singers and the dance beats, two computer programmers, a hospital porter, and a visual designer sat in a dark, squalid room and punched keys on a second-hand machine to create the glistening future of pop music.
95. Heart “Crazy on You”
(Ann Wilson/Nancy Wilson)
Dreamboat Annie, 1976
I’ve heard this song called a Zeppelin rip-off (supposedly the line “let me go crazy, crazy on you” is derivative of “it’s been a lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.” Uh, okay, whatever), and more generally, Heart is dismissed by classic-rock chauvinists as a second-rate band with too many pop hooks and not enough instrumental wankage. Oh, and they probably have cooties. But if they’d only ever recorded the first two or three albums, they’d be considered legends by more people than their record company’s accountants — seriously, this is good freaking stuff. It helps, maybe, if you think of them as great 70s pop like Harry Nilsson and Fleetwood Mac, instead of as major album-rock artists going head to head with, I dunno, Rush or something. But they’re not just pop, either (although those hooks are killer, and a handful of their songs have achieved boomer-radio immortality); instrumentally, Nancy Wilson is as great a radio-friendly guitarist as there was in the 70s — as the classical-acoustic prelude to the song seems bound and determined to prove — and the dudes hold their own, especially the drummer. Ann, of course, has a great set of pipes, and if she doesn’t have the hair-raising immediacy of the best rock singers, she still manages to convince on both the Galadrielesque cod-mysticism of the verses and the snarling hunger of the choruses. Though there is one thing we can all agree on: they sucked in the 80s.
94. Lou Reed “Perfect Day”
This is how the indie-snob mindset works, for those who are curious: Lou Reed gets a free pass to write a sappy love song with big Broadway key changes and lyrics stolen fron Motown, because 1) he doesn’t sing on key all the way through, 2) he mentions (and mispronounces) sangria in the first few lines, and 3) he wrote “Heroin” and “Sister Ray.” Once you’ve made ears bleed, you’re allowed to do pop fluff, especially if it doesn’t sound quite like any other pop fluff out there. I like the song because it seems like such a direct contradiction of his hipster-asshole persona. And because of the aforementioned big Broadway key changes, which could be right out of a Sondheim show but with less witty and intelligent lyrics. Bowie’s production emphasizes the theatrical pomposity of it, undercut by Reed’s low-rent everyman voice. It’s not punk, and it’s only vaguely related to glam because Bowie and Ferry emphasize the theatrics in their music, and it’s only deeply personal in the way that the best pop music is, by being so universal that it applies perfectly to everyone’s life, so in that sense it’s not a typical Lou Reed song at all. But it’s not only the best song on Transformer (like most random hits, “Walk on the Wild Side” has dated badly), but it’s great, great pop music, and that’s why we’re here, after all.
93. Ronnie Spector “Try Some, Buy Some”
When David Bowie included a cover of this song on his 2003 album Reality, music reviewers fell all over themselves talking about how it was a tribute to the recently-dead George Harrison, thereby proving that they could read songwriting credits. Maybe one in every hundred knew about the original. George wrote and co-produced (with Phil Spector) this song for Ronnie as one of the fledgling singles on the Apple label, and the song bears the distinction of being the last time all four Beatles played on the same track until “Free As a Bird” (though they were never all in the studio at the same time). Which is nice trivia to have — and it certainly shows the esteem the then-Mrs. Spector was held in by the Fab Four — but the Bowie cover touches on something deeper: Ronnie, along with Dusty Springfield, was one of the patterning female icons of glam (see “Bennie and the Jets” for a direct tribute), and subsequently of gay culture. Her reading of the mysterious-as-usual lyric — is it about prostitution? spiritual awakening? yet another ode to Patti Boyd? — is full of the fragile dignity that camp icons from Bette to Judy to Barbra to Liza to Debra Messing incorporate. It’s taken at a stately pace, and the orchestral swoop and roar is a grand thing to behold; it failed as a single, naturally, and isn’t available on CD (although the 45 has recently been reissued). That’s nothing new; she’s made dozens of comebacks since, none of them successful commercially, but she remains one of the shining lights of twentieth-century music.
92. Sparks “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”
Kimono My House, 1974
Might as well get this out of the way now: there is no Queen on this list. That’s because this song exists, and Queen is rendered unnecessary thereby. Okay, hyperbole; and of course I still bang my head to the last movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But Russell Mael’s operatic falsetto completely destroys Freddie Mercury’s, and in this short glam-pop-metal-novelty song, they manage to hit every one of Queen’s marks: glorious riffage, classical melody played at a brisk rock & roll clip, wild Hollywoodesque imagery — everything except the massed choirs of Mercuries. Enough with the Queen-fan-baiting, though. Sparks were — are — a couple of brothers, Ron on keyboards and Russ on vocals. Back in the 70s, though, they had a full band, and this massive song takes full advantage of the fact, with cascading drums, winding guitars, and a muscular bassline that almost tricks you into thinking this pair of jokers is a serious stadium act. They could have been, if that was the kind of thing they were interested in; but they belong to the grand American tradition of restless eccentrics, and preferred to maintain their goofy, complex, rapid-fire sound rather than chase the crock of gold at the end of the pop-chart rainbow. Until new wave and synth-pop caught up with them in the 80s, that is; but that’s a story for another day.
91. The Wild Tchoupitoulas “Hey Pocky A-Way”
(Ziggy Modeliste/Art Neville/Leo Nocentelli/George Porter, Jr.)
The Wild Tchoupitoulas, 1976
As you might be able to tell from the songwriting credit, originally this was a Meters song. And it’s a great Meters song, one of the cold classics of New Orleans funk. This is not as muscular, or as funky — at least, and this is where language kind of lets you down, it’s not funky with the same overcharged stomp. It’s swampier, sultrier, slowed-down a trifle, with more tribal voudou and less R&B strut. The Wild Tchoupitoulas were — are, dammit — a Creole group whose main purpose is to celebrate Mardi Gras, a highly traditional collective, dressed in full faux-Indian regalia, that still uses music for its original purpose: to celebrate the here and now, a specific time and place for the people that can hear them from where they dance. With that mandate, it’s not surprising that they only made the one record (the surprise is that they made it at all), but it’s a slow-burn voodoo funk treasure — and the first time all the Neville brothers appeared on the same record at the same time. You can hear Aaron’s unmistakable voice, of course, but he also plays piano while Red and Art are on keyboards and Charles and Cyril on percussion. The rest of the Meters help out here and there, while the Tchoupitoulas themselves, led by Big Chief George Landry, sing and harmonize. This is the heart of New Orleans folk-jive.
This is why Zeppelin matters. Their widescreen, Technicolor version of the blues in Surround Sound™ is one of the greatest achivements of rock & roll. Forget their development of the grammar of heavy metal, their stadium excess, their noodly hobbit crap, and the lowbrow “Zep rulz 4eva” culture that’s deified them at the expense of subtlety, intelligence and reason. The reason Bonham’s opening blows (“beats” doesn’t do them justice) have been so frequently sampled is that despite their lunkheaded reputation, Led Zeppelin is secretly funky underneath all that wail and roar. Seriously; I can’t listen to this song at work anymore, because I’ll look like an idiot bopping Cypress Hill-style to my headphones. It’s a truism that when white people try to play black, they usually pump up the volume, even though black music is generally notable for how much it holds back, how devious rather than blunt it is. (That’s what slavery and an underground-by-necessity culture will do.) With this song, Zeppelin lives up to the trusim and takes it the further step of making volume fundamentally necessary, a part of the artistic world of the song rather than just a racial signifier. This is Wagner to Memphis Minnie’s biergärtenlieder, a reconfiguring of everything we know to fit a new, more dangerous world. When the people refuse to listen to the dire prophecies contained in those crackly old 78s, maybe primal force will get their attention.
89. Chicago “Saturday in the Park”
Chicago V, 1972
Those opening reverbed piano notes are all I need. The rest of the song could just not exist, and I wouldn’t care, as long as that “dun-da-dun-na, dun-da-dun-na” was around for me to hear every once in a while. Okay, I guess the chicken-scratch guitar on the downbeat is pretty good to. And that first trombone note is wonderful. All right, fine, the rest of the song kicks ass. But it’s all about those piano notes. Chicago started out as a great band, a Miles Davis-influenced jazz-rock combo with side-long suites and funky prog-jazz hits like “25 or 6 to 4.” Then they recorded this song (although the rest of that album remained fiercely progressive), and they began their long slow slide into the maggot-infested easy-listening zombies that they became in the 80s. This song retains their old muscle, however, and is a breezy, truly delightful portrait of the kind of day that is usually shown in romantic comedies in montage form — frequently with this song playing over it. It’s almost the last echo of 60s optimism before the grim reality of the 70s set in, and although I could do without Lamm’s white-dude-singing-soul vocals (you can just tell he thinks he’s really cool just because he’s in a band and so gets laid a lot, even though he’s a dweeb), they end up being charming in some mysterious naïve-hippy fashion. Oh, and singing in Italian — always cool.
88. Nicky Hopkins “Speed On”
(Nicky Hopkins/Jerry Williams, Jr.)
The Tin Man Was a Dreamer, 1973
The ultimate session man (just about every decent rock & roll outfit between 1965 and 1980 had him lend a hand on the ivories now and again), Nicky Hopkins is also one of my favorite solo artists. Yes, he only recorded two LPs in the 70s, and only one of them has wandered onto CD, but if he’d wanted to tour and do the usual pop-star thing, he could have been a less-smarmy Elton John or a less-pompous Billy Joel. But he was too shy, and too sickly, and preferred to just hang out with rock legends than be one. This song chronicles a bit of the tribulations of being a session man (another song on the album is called, even more directly, “ Waiting for the Band”), with him suffering an anxiety attack in the back seat of a cab because he’s late to the studio. It’s a fine, hard-driving song of the kind that would go extinct very soon, when velocity would become inextricably linked to volume. But here, George Harrison lends a hand on a perfect slide solo, there’s a drums-and-bongos breakdown, and Nicky screams and shrieks the lyrics into the mike like John Lennon at his most unhinged. The horn section that the Stones used on Exile makes a reappearance here (one of the perks of being a great session player is that you get to use other great session players on your solo work), and ultimately you’re left with the impression that the song is mostly about how amphetamines are a necessary part of the survival kit of a rock & roll musician.
87. Kate Bush “Wuthering Heights”
I’m not gonna front: I prefer her 1986 re-recording of the song, in which she sounds marginally less like a Chipmunk singing to Dave Seville, but the fact remains that this is the definitive version, the song that brought her international fame at the age of 19, and which is still an amazing recording, twenty-eight years later. It’s based on the Emily Brontë novel, of course, and she sings from the point of view of rich young brat Katherine to her dark, murderous lover Heathcliff — though I’ve gotta wonder how many people think it’s about a cartoon cat — and she nails both the false high drama and florid emotion of the novel in her melody and arrangement. I read an article once that said that Kate Bush is like the weird, multi-necklaced art teacher we all had in high school who some people hated and others followed devotedly. That’s not a bad comparison, although she is of course a greater artist by a factor of thousands than anyone who’s still teaching high school — and she certainly projects enough of an eccentric-feminist vibe to creep out the jocks and inspire the sentimental goth chicks. Which isn’t really present in this song; Ian Bairnson’s Gilmourish solo provides enough muscle for the meatheads who can’t clue in to the fire behind her icy soprano and the joyous passion behind those marvelous piano runs. I do miss those cries on the fadeout, though.
86. The Pointer Sisters “Yes We Can Can”
The Pointer Sisters, 1973
A decade before they became frizzy-haired dance-pop icons with “I’m So Excited,” the Pointer Sisters (Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June) released two of the most wonderful albums of the 1970s, or, really, ever. The Pointer Sisters and That’s A-Plenty (1974) are an amazing showcase of a quartet that can do just about anything — and does. Veering from hard bop to Kansas City swing to psychedelic soul to bluesy funk to mile-a-minute vocalese to Tin Pan Alley to Broadway gospel to straight-up country — often, as the saying goes, within the space of a single song — they offer a too-brief lesson in the history of twentieth-century American music, and make a staggering case for the tragic underappreciatedness of the female vocal group along the way. The “sister act” is as old as vaudeville, but they transformed it into a new and compelling trans-genre form. Seriously, check them out. You’ll thank me later. This song, though, is more straightfoward. Allen Toussaint wrote it for Lee Dorsey in 1970, but these girls drive it home with a Sly & the Family Stone-derived groove, a San Franciscan stomp on a New Orleans shuffle, upping the feverish gospel quotient (Bonnie even proto-raps towards the end) and entering a kind of trance with their cut-glass harmonies on the infinitely-repeated chorus: a lesson that house music would later take to heart when it learned the value of synthesized loops and gospel samples. Just remember, they did it first.
85. Pink Floyd “Comfortably Numb”
(David Gilmour/Roger Waters)
The Wall, 1979
I know you’re not gonna believe this, but I’ve never listened to The Wall. Or watched it, for that matter. I only know the song from AOR radio, which is probably why I like it so much. As I may have mentioned before, I’m a pop guy. Concept albums and multi-disc suites are all very well in theory, but just give me a damn song, and I couldn’t be happier. So I have no idea how this fits in to the grand overarching scheme of rock’s most notoriously excessive concept-album statement about the soul-crushing horror of being a rock star or whatever, but I do know that pretentious self-important twaddle has never sounded more compelling, that glistening million-dollar space-age textures have never sounded so emotional (even if the emotions are fractured, blunted, and miasmic), and that David Gilmour’s crescendoing solo at the end — even though mental flashes of millions of be-mulleted air-guitarists around the world playing along are inevitable — is one of the finest examples of late-70s playing, in that overly-tightassed, perfectly-sculpted way that always makes me think of billionaires doing cocaine on a space station. Like I said, I’m a pop guy, and the perfect pop moment in the song comes just after the words “there’ll be no more.” You know what I mean. Still overly-mannered and emotionally dead, but still, a cry from the heart.
84. Gil Scott-Heron “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
Pieces of a Man, 1971
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay. There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay. Even though I, a bourgeois honky more or less in bed with The Man, don’t have the right to call black men my brothers except in the most general Christian sense and have no particular quarrels with law enforcement even though I’m perfectly aware that I would not have gotten off scot-free that one time if I were less than lily-white, I still love that line, or rather the repetition of that line, which makes the jump from spoken-word to actual goddamn rap. Now that everyone from Chuck D to the Roots has acknowledged Scott-Heron’s importance in the development of rap (not to mention the development of radical black consciousness), I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new compilation of his work in Starbucks; but he’s still dangerous. Not just because he dares to use the word revolution (and back in 1971 it was infinitesimally closer to an actual threat), but because all of black music, past and future, finds a locus in him — even in this song. Backwards through funk, soul, jazz and the blues, forward to — well, most of us have lived through the next steps. He was right that the revolution would not be televised; what he didn’t mention was that soon, very soon, everything would be televised. And there wouldn’t be any room left for revolution.
83. James Luther Dickinson “Wine”
Dixie Fried, 1972
Novelist and critic Nick Tosches has been calling this record one of the great American musics for the past thirty-some years, but it remains a wild, uncivilized secret, one shared by a devoted few with surreptitious nods and suddenly-jerked heads whenever we hear anything that sounds remotely similar. It reaches back into the primordial dawn of American music, long before that boy Edison and his gramophonomatichord started pumping blood into Billboard’s veins, before there was much of a distinction between country and blues or anything else, when everything in American culture that was not sanctioned by stiff-collared European precedent was raw and violent and rock & roll. This is a deviant take on the country-blues rhythm number “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” originally cut by Stick McGhee in 1946, set afire with a daemonic flame by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957, and completely overhauled and given a new chassis by Dallas garage band the Nightcaps in 1962. Legendary Memphis producer and session man Dickinson loads the song up with hard-rock signifiers, but also refuses to take the easy way out, remaining true to the song’s country-blues roots: the result is a huge unsanctified noise, with several guitars, pianos, drum kits, basses, gospel backup singers, and what I swear to God sounds like panes of glass being shattered piling on top of each other fighting for space under Dickinson’s throaty roar. If you close your eyes and turn it up as far as you dare, it’s damn close to rock & roll nirvana.
82. Tim Buckley “Starsailor”
(John Balkin/Larry Beckett/Tim Buckley)
And then there’s the Kid A outtake. Well, at least it doesn’t sound like much else released in the pop market in the past thirty years. Actually, this is a serious compositional piece; Buckley wanted to push the frontiers of pop to keep up with experimental tape-loopers like Karl Penderecki and György Ligeti, and this is a brief snatch of free verse in — well, here, the “composer’s notes” that every lyric-bot website reproduces will explain:
Harmonic structure: a set of horizontal vocal lines is improvised in at least three ranges, the vertical effect of which is atonal tone clusters and arhythmic counterpoint. Performance: the written melody is to be sung, after which the lines of lyric are to be reordered at will and sung to improvised melody, taking advantage of the opportunity for quartertones, third note lengths, and flexible tempo.
So yeah. I’m too clod-ignorant to know what any of that actually means, but I do know that it sounds fucking cool. Apparently, after the release of this album, the record company told him to make his music more accessible or he wouldn’t be allowed to record any more; within five years, he was dead.
81. Bruce Springsteen “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1974
You know the famous line about Springsteen’s Born to Run sound being that of a ’57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals 45s? This is where that started. Actually, it’s all of early-60s rock & roll: the Beach Boys, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, King Curtis, Dion & the Belmonts, Duane Eddy, the Coasters, “Spanish Harlem,” and the entire Phil Spector universe, painstakingly disassembled and then reconfigured, with stunning postapocalyptic vision, into a post-Dylan barroom soul-rock epic that signals not only the advent of a new voice in rock & roll, but that the way forward in rock was not to leave behind the goofy teenager-in-love drama of pre-Invasion American pop, but to embrace it, with all the goofiness and splendor that it entails. Although he became deeper, more soulful, more artistic, and even, eventually, more hip, he never again sounded like he was having quite so much fun — when he shouts “the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!” you can hear the honest delight in his voice, because they really just had — in making rock & roll. It’s the most adrenal, pop, delirious, charismatic multi-suite song in age of tedious, wanky, sensitive, and pompous multi-suite songs, one huge crescendo after another, until finally the whole band is just chanting orgasmically. This does make three songs in a row, however, where the final sound is feedback draining from the amps. Make a note of that, someone.
80. Yoko Ono “Listen, the Snow Is Falling”
Yes, another Yoko solo song. As long as people continue to repeat the canard about Yoko being the evil bitch who broke up the Beatles, I’ll continue to celebrate her real and considerable achievements on her own. Not that this is really on-her-own on her own; John’s fingerprints are all over this thing, from the gorgeous church-organ arrangement to the simple beauty of the melody and the vivid poetry of the lyrics. It was the b-side to “Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” and thirty-five years later is so much obviously the superior song that it’s kind of insulting to know that the a-side will be all over oldies stations in the next month whereas I’m only ever going to be able to hear this by pressing Play. The fact that Galaxie 500 brought the song to indie-snob attention in 1990 with their final album is a factor, but only in the sense that they pointed out how far ahead of her time Yoko (and John) could be: nothing else released in the 1970s is quite as relevant to modern indie-pop as this. Belle & Sebastian, among thousands of others, are somehow unimaginable without it. Two last things to savor: the false beginning where it sounds like it’s going to just be more whisper-pop, and the stately, chiming hook that sounds both like Bach and Phil Spector at his best.
79. Townes Van Zandt “Pancho and Lefty”
(Townes Van Zandt)
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, 1972
And sometimes all you need is a man and a guitar and some dust in his voice. Townes Van Zandt (no relation to Steve or the Skynyrd boys) was one of the all-time great singer-songwriters, a Texan whose downbeat version of country-inflected folk-rock brings to mind a Southern, rural Leonard Cohen. The song is a character sketch of sorts, an incomplete story in which the important things are left unsaid and the imagery is all passive: a determinedly pessimistic response to the failure of 60s idealism. The chorus is one of the great sarcastic barbs of the 70s (a decade, let it be noted, in which Randy Newman and Warren Zevon came into their own), a weary sneer at human folly and the general pointlessness of it all. But it’s the sound of the song, more than anything, that really gets me: I live in the American Southwest, and I tend to spend most of my music hours immersed in the sound of just about anywhere else, but this is the sound of scrub brush on the vast yellow-gray plains, a two-lane ribbon of road heading from nowhere to nowhere, under a vast uncaring sky. It’s the sound of weathered boards and metal that’s oxidized for decades in the desert heat, the sound of grainy, unlovely dust getting everywhere, no matter how tightly you shut everything up. Pancho and Lefty knew this terrain well, and while one of them died in Mexico and the other tried to escape to the more shuttered Midwest, you never really get the mesas out of the back of your mind.
78. The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass “Theme de Yo-Yo”
(The Art Ensemble of Chicago)
Les Stances a Sophie, 1970
The Art Ensemble of Chicago: the legendary conceptual-jazz quartet who built off of Coltrane, Davis and Shepp to blaze a cosmic, performance-art-oriented path across the musical landscape. Fontella Bass: the St. Louis soul singer whose big hit was “Rescue Me.” Oh, and who also happened to be married to AEC trumpeter Lester Bowie. Les Stances a Sophie: a mediocre French dramedy which managed to snag one of the most innovative jazz groups around to record the soundtrack, because they were living in Paris at the time. “Theme de Yo-Yo”: the most perfect union of jazz and funk on record. Fontella sings some surreal lyrics featuring some of the least complimentary similes outside of a Dylan song (though it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re meant to be uncomplimentary; some people think they’re sexy), the drummer and bassist lock into a groove and keep it going come hell or high water; and the horns head for the stars. Then, suddenly, wham! that nagging, funky riff returns, and you realize that you’ve been dancing through some of the freakiest free-jazz squalls this side of Ornette Coleman. This keeps up for another five minutes of funky, freaky goodness, Fontella returns for a victory lap, and it’s still a tragically well-kept secret outside of hardcore funk and jazz heads. But I guarantee you that Can knew it well.
77. Mott the Hoople “Honaloochie Boogie”
Mott the Hoople is a difficult band to rank in a list like this. This is because while they weren’t a spectacularly original or innovative band, they were always really good (at least till Hunter left), and so I’m left with the difficulty of deciding which of their many terrific songs is my favorite. I’m not going to complain, because it means I get to listen to more Hoople, but all that is just to say that “Honaloochie Boogie” was chosen almost at random. What gave it the edge is that I wanted to point out how funny the way the British pronounce “boogie” (with a long “oo” instead of a short one, like the Americans who freaking invented the stuff) always is to me. At least they get the hard G right. And okay, the riff is really great; they were only really associated with glam rock for the one album that Bowie produced, but the pep talk it provided made for some wonderful crystalline production, all glitter and kick. The reluctant sound of Mick Ralphs’ guitar (I don’t know how else to describe it) is one of my favorite sounds from the 70s; for a band that started out almost pathetically influenced by the Stones, they were nearly on another planet by this time. Oh, and Hunter’s watery production on the “she’s a screwdriver jiver” bridge deserves a nod. So does the guest appearance of Andy Mackay’s saxophone. Shit, this is an even better song than I thought!
76. Kirsty MacColl “They Don’t Know”
Stiff Records is in the running for greatest label of all time. Not just because of their impudent bravado, which turned the art of promotion on its head, and not even because of the leg up they gave to punk and/or Elvis Costello, but because they nearly single-handedly revived the art of the great pop single at the tail end of the 70s. Almost forgotten beneath weighty double-album prog rock epics, unlimited disco remixes, the macho posturing of heavy metal, and insidiously bland corporate “rock” that sounded like nothing so much as cocaine poured over folk-rock’s twitching corpse, the great pop single (you know, like the Turtles, the Monkees, the Beach Boys, and those other guys, what was their name, oh yeah the Beatles used to make) was forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of slightly disreputable history. Until a scrappy label with practically no taste and unlimited enthusiasm (plus perhaps the greatest in-house producer ever, Nick Lowe) popped up in a Bayswater back street and decided that they would do whatever the hell they pleased. One of the things that pleased them to do was to record Kirsty MacColl, a.k.a. The Greatest Pop Singer of The Last Twenty-Five Years. They were interested in her songs mostly for Tracy Ullman to cover (no, really), but one listen to this Phil-Spector-for-the-blank-generation song (and that heartstopping “ba-ay-bee!”) drops a major hint as to just who the one with the talent really was.
75. Leon Russell “Tight Rope”
By 1972, Leon Russell had kicked around the music industry enough to be his own man at last. He’d worked for Phil Spector, reportedly clapping until his hands bled for a Ronettes track. He’d played piano for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, had dated Rita Coolige, had turned out two goofy swamp-psychedelia albums of middling interest with Marc Benno, and had seen songs he’d written taken to the top of the charts by Cocker, Donny Hathaway, and the Carpenters. And with this song, a cheerful, carnivalesque thumper, he took stock of his life and times, trying to deal with a newfound fame but self-mythologizing habitually, like any rock star worth his salt would. (The same album contains an extended criticism of Rolling Stone journalists and overinvolved music fans; one paranoid possibility for why his career petered out after the mid-70s.) The music is more or less ragtime gone country, with boogie-woogie accents and a circus-music breakdown which follows not just the pattern of the lyrics but the album art and, more generally, the fact that rock & roll, especially as it blossomed into a more variegated form of theater/ritual in the late 60s, had roots in older low-class entertainment forms like vaudeville, burlesque, medicine shows, minstrelsy, and even (once upon a time) opera and straight drama. Show business is show business; it always bleeds its practitioners dry. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t enjoy the ride.
74. John Prine “Sam Stone”
John Prine, 1971
The singer-songwriter phenomenon was in full swing by the time Prine came along and, with Kris Kristofferson’s help, scored a record deal and produced an LP that bore this, his most famous — and maybe his best-ever — song. Cat Stevens, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell had been the vanguard of the singer-songwriter movement (with Dylan, naturally, as its unwilling, irascible spiritual godfather), and their complex melodies and elegant, contemplative lyrics set the pattern; they’re the reason “sensitive” is so often prefixed to “singer-songwriter.” We might even call them emo today. Prine was cut out of different stuff altogether; unafraid to either shock or disgust (but devoid of the badass pretention that made someone like Lou Reed an underground icon), he cuts through the self-important bullshit of the genre with a clean picking style and a hoarse voice, and lands one of the best sucker-punches in music with the most devastating opening couplet to a chorus that I’ve ever heard. There’s grim humor here, and sympathy without sentiment, and even an approach to Harry Smith’s timeless universality, in the lean, sparse tale of a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran; and the reference in the final stanza to the G. I. Bill reminds you that, shit, Vietnam was hardly the first war to leave psychic scars on a generation — and it’s not the last, either.
73. Ike & Tina Turner “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”
Workin’ Together, 1971
Let’s get this out of the way first: Tina Turner is one of the top three female soul singers of all time. (Aretha is of course the second, and the third spot is debatable, though I’d go with Etta James). Her adult-contemporary career in the 1980s, as well as an understandable reluctance on the part of liberal boomers to give credit or money to asshole extraordinaire Ike Turner, has almost pushed out of sight a jaw-dropping amount of funky, hot, raunchy, devil’s-own music that spanned two decades, and is the greatest little-heard treasure trove in rock & roll. And make no mistake: Ike had just as much to do with it as Tina, and often more. A relentless self-promoter and manipulative svengali, he was also a dynamite instrumentalist, bandleader, songwriter, arranger, producer, and (occasionally) vocalist. Now that Tina’s safe from his reach, living with her Italian millionaire while he hustles to get cheapo blues releases on the shelves, it’s time to even up the score again. This is deep funk, made by a man who knew his Stone and his Clinton, but nasty and trebly to match Tina’s sawmill of a voice. Though it follows the usual formulas of an early-70s dis song, it’s generally agreed to be about Ike (Aillene Bullock is a version of Tina’s maiden name), and he either was too dim to catch on or figured it would be more badass if he didn’t care.
72. Iggy Pop “The Passenger”
(Ricky Gardiner/Iggy Pop)
Lust for Life, 1977
Vo-de-o-do-Oi! Yes, that carefree electric strum recalls the sound of a cigar-box ukelele and nights spent spooning on the porch with the local shieks and flappers . . . but the song is one of Iggy’s trademark paranoid urban fantasias, aided and abbetted by David Bowie on production and backup vocals in Berlin. Iggy Pop is one of American music’s great mavericks, from his ear-splitting, vein-bursting years with the Stooges to the varied muses he’s followed as a solo artist, but this song finds him edging his dry, world-weary croon into a more sophisticated, European mold. It’s about what we would today call eurotrash glitterazzi, people who can afford smoked-glass limos enjoying that luxury, trawling through the decadent streets in search of ever more spectacular and sleazy thrills. And that’s where the Twenties swing comes in: New York socialites were doing the same thing in Harlem fifty years earlier (and don’t think Pop — and especially Bowie — didn’t know it), and at the same time the Bright Young Things were doing it in Soho and Chelsea in London, and the Old-World aristocracy was doing it in Weimar Berlin. (Speaking of which, fuck Cabaret; check out Pandora’s Box, G. W. Pabst’s much more truthful 1927 collaboration with Louise Brooks.) There’s no machinist noise here, but that lazy strum is all the scarier.
71. Candi Staton “Too Hurt to Cry”
(George Jackson/Robert Moore)
This might be the last great Southern soul song. No, Al Green doesn’t count. He’s something else entirely. The Muscle Shoals studios were never the equal of Memphis’s Stax/Volt behemoth in terms of sales and influence, but they were just as fine an operation, and the discerning knew it. (Even Lynyrd Skynyrd namechecked them.) And their Aretha was Candi, whose appealingly raw, emotion-soaked voice made up for her lack of gale-force lungs on record; producer Rick Hall used to make her sing at the top of her voice until her voice started to crack, and then recorded that. Like many insane, borderline-abusive producers, he was right. She covered country songs frequently, and to good effect; her version of “In the Ghetto” is about the only listenable one there is. But it’s this song that was her finest moment, both commercially and artistically. Over a breezy piano line and some of the funkiest drums outside of a beatbox, she manages to have it both ways, both raw emotion (her voice) and noble, silent suffering (the lyrics), without contradiction. The pop-soul instrumentation is flattering and punctuational, and the impression, on first listen, is that of discovering not just a lost classic, but a whole new universe of soul and spirit. She later became a disco diva (and was made comfortable in middle age by being sampled on house songs), and today mostly does gospel, but she saved soul’s soul back in the day.
70. Television “Marquee Moon”
Marquee Moon, 1977
Almost thirty years ago, critics were groping for words like “angular” and “wiry” to describe Television’s sound, and no better descriptives have come along since. Although I still remember the way they were first described to me: as the Grateful Dead with all the blues leached out. Which makes them, in an odd way, more beholden to European classical music concepts than to the traditional rock & roll forms. This is their definitive track: a comopositional masterpiece without a hair out of place, Richard Lloyd’s guitar laying down a mesmerizing rhythm while Tom Verlaine’s guitar works increasingly complex patterns over top of it. There are lyrics, too, some kind of depressive beatnik ramblings, but they’re not the point (though Verlaine’s hipster yowl is about the only thing “punk” about the song; it’s an album-rock radio staple in a much cooler parallel universe). The point is the structure of the piece, the way it works inevitably, mathematically even, to a glorious crescendo — and after that, the most incredible sound, like fireworks or some kind of aural orgasm. Then the drums kick in with the motorik boom-chik again, and the train gets back on the tracks. Another verse, and it’s just about over. The structure, actually, is more or less the same as “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — but this is incomparably the greater song.
69. Nick Drake “Pink Moon”
Pink Moon, 1972
One of the odd side-effects of the modern age of mp3s and the long tail marketplace is that the process of rediscovery often says more about the present time than the past. This isn’t really anything new: Moby-Dick was rediscovered and canonized in the 1920s because the 1920s needed Moby-Dick more than the 1850s had. Similarly, Nick Drake was virtually unnoticed during his lifetime, the age of singer-songwriters whose sensitivity was more or less a commercial venture; his rediscovery and canonization in the 1990s (where he could be seen as inhabiting the same level of uncertain beauty as Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith or early Belle & Sebastian) said more about the needs of the 1990s than it did about the time when he lived — and died. Like Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley, he died early and meaninglessly. Which is part of the charm, no doubt; music nerds sometimes seem to prefer a closed discography to those works still in progress (like Dylan or Costello today). This song was chosen, and I’ll be frank about this, because it was used in a car commercial and that’s how I became aware of it, and of Drake, and of his work. It was the first song I knew by him, and because I’m not a Drake obsessive (yet), it’s still my favorite, an immensely hushed scrap of fragile completeness. Whatever that means.
68. Harry Chapin “Taxi”
Heads & Tales, 1972
Sometimes you’re more critical when the artist sets a very high standard; anyway, that’s what I tell myself during the lazy, lazy rhymes “didn’t say anything more” and “a sad smile just the same.” Never mind what VH1 says, Chapin is one of the few musicians really worthy of the title Storyteller: his songs are almost always little dioramas of morality, longing and loss. And his sound-sculpturing was never less than brilliant, using what was really a quite small band to sound like a full studio orchestra, getting just about any cinematic effect he could ask for. The rhythm of this story is familiar — teenage lovers meet again years later to find that their youthful dreams both failed and came true in bittersweet irony — but he manages to place the telling little details that spark it to its own unique kind of life: the dress wet in the rain, the giveaway name on the license, the gate and the fine trimmed lawns. Not to mention the strange fantasy imagery on the bridge, which seems to come out of another song entirely (and the weird, keening lines by his bassist, Big John Wallace) but which dovetails beautifully with the finale. It would be a tough-luck story worthy of Hemingway, O’Hara, or Fitzgerald if it weren’t for the final couple of lines, which transform it into a post-Sixties comedown: Ken Kesey or Hunter S. Thompson with more dignified grace and wry humility.
067. The Damned “Smash It Up, Parts I & II”
Machine Gun Etiquette, 1979
The milquetoast’s punk anthem. First you get two minutes of gorgeous pointillist electric drift, with Algy Ward’s sludgy bass keeping it real while the guitars and drums swirl in soft-rock fantasias, and then, finally, 1:59 deep into the song, do we get anything resembling a buzzsaw attack. But even that’s just amphetamined glam, T. Rex with no time to waste, not the dark, jagged noise the Damned made their name playing. For a band that pretty much accidentally became the first UK punk-rock group, this is some awful sissy stuff, the destructive nihilist lyrics delivered with an audible grin, even when Vanian unleashes the bottom-register “demonic” voice during the middle eight. Apparently the song is something of a tribute to Marc Bolan, who died in the summer of 1977, just late enough to declare himself the Godfather of Punk (his final, brilliant pop masterpiece, “Celebrate Summer,” makes the case exquisitely); and it works beautifully for that. It works beautifully anyway, without the backstory, and any pop lover who thinks punk isn’t worth their time needs to hear it, like, yesterday. Yeah, the Damned cut the first UK punk single (“New Rose”), the first UK punk album (Damned Damned Damned), toured the US first, had the first serious membership rift, and became the first punk dinosaurs in the 80s, but it was this moment, and specifically this song, when they decided to bleed in other rock genres, that their ghoulish, snarky version of punk became interesting.
66. Genesis “Firth of Fifth”
Selling England by the Pound, 1973
This may have been the first time I bought an album, uh, sound unheard; I hadn’t heard any of it on classic-rock radio, no one I knew had ever heard any Genesis; I just read a review (Starostin’s, if you must know) and decided it sounded good. So an important step in my musical education, sure, but it deserves the spot for other reasons too: despite the extended, and extremely pretentious, instrumental suites, it’s structurally a decent little pop tune, with some of Peter Gabriel’s best meaningless-folderol-that-adds-up-to-visionary-poetry. I get the sense that Tony Banks’ opening piano sketch is trying to evoke Beethoven, but doesn’t have the melodic muscle for it and ends up somewhere closer to Grieg; or maybe it’s just the firth in the title that makes me think of the composer of the Norwegian fjords. Regardless, the entire song — Gabriel’s lyrics, the sweeping faux-majesty of the instrumental passages, all of it — makes me think of tales of Northern ocean voyages in the age before steel or gunpowder, of dawn over a white, calm ocean, of tantalizing glimpses of green mountains through the fog, the sight of a naked albatross sailing overhead, tempests that threaten but do not drown, and of the sparkle and wonder of the unearthly Aurora Borealis, a sight vouchsafed only to a chosen few. That’s what I think of; but I was young when I first heard it, and more romantic than I am today.
65. Looking Glass “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”
Looking Glass, 1972
Normally, I despise the too-common complaints about how popular music was so much better “back then,” usually meaning the golden age of 60s and 70s rock. Those whiners are the same as the people who were horrified by the rise of rock & roll in the 50s, and scandalized by jazz in the 20s. But occasionally, they can have a point. For example. “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is as perfectly dopey a slice of AM pop as the 70s ever provided, and could be used, along with selected hits of the Carpenters, America, and Loggins & Messina, to provide a kind of Lowest Common Denominator for 70s pop. Now compare it with the Lowest Common Denominator soft-pop of today, James Blunt or whatever. At least Looking Glass told a fucking story, however trite. Modern AM mush-pop is all grand generalities, all non-specific “I”s and “you”s, with a couple of common verbs and a universally-applicable adjective or two thrown in, with emoting in place of melody. “Brandy” is starting to look pretty good now, huh? Okay, so “it’s better than James Blunt” is nobody’s idea of high praise, but seriously, who can hate this song? It’s so damn cheerful, even though the narrative is about heartbreak and loss; it’s the horns, probably, that give it the extra something needed to break through into the eternal-pop pantheon. Where it is, in my book.
64. Throbbing Gristle “Hot on the Heels of Love”
20 Jazz-Funk Greats, 1979
The Gristle at their most floppy-eared bunny-hugging accessible, this song has been called everything from dark electro-funk to the first techno song. It’s actually got more in common with latter-day glitchtronica like Autechre than with anything out of Detroit in the mid-80s, but if you’re willing to stretch a point you can almost hear it. The punishing noise and splintered tape loops that made them the originators of industrial music have been left behind for the stark minimalist sound of sequencers thumping and bristling fragments of electronic melody, over which Cosey Fanni Tutti murmurs, sounding like a robot dominatrix, a lyric just as minimal: “Hot on the heels of love/I’m waiting for help from above.” But like John Lennon said of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” the lyrics are so spare because that’s all that needs to be said. You could call it the moment when the industrial side of post-punk, which had always been screamingly political rather than personal, first tipped over into the icy romanticism that, say, the Eurythmics would later exploit, but first that’s kind of an insult depending on what you think of the Eurythmics, and second the song doesn’t need any historical-fulcrum analysis in order to be a kickass song. If androids dream of electric sheep, this is the song those sheep waltz to when the dream edges into nightmare.
63. Rachel Sweet “Who Does Lisa Like?”
Fool Around, 1978
Rachel Sweet was sixteen years old when she left Akron, Ohio for the greener pastures of post-industrial London and Stiff Records. A seasoned performer, brought up doing country covers on the county-fair circuit, she already had a huge, booming Patsy Cline voice and a facility with interpretation that many older performers could envy. The song’s writer, Liam Sternberg, came with her from Akron, a sort of burnt-out hippie manager-cum-svengali who, strangely enough, managed in his songwriting to nail a specific tone that could be American, English, or whatever — but it’s definitely teenager. Bored teenager, too (though Rachel sounds anything but), like the Ramones were supposed to be. The song is high-school lunchroom gossip, specific in its evocation of Americana — hanging around in the Firestone parking lot — but cheeky enough to appeal to British sensibilities too. And Nick Lowe matches that hat trick with one of his best productions: a nervous, twitchy rhythm, with several Rachels piled up on top of each other for those great plastic harmonies (and some help from labelmate and fellow Ohioan Lene Lovich on the high notes), and a fitful, spastic guitar played off a snarky, Clemonsy sax. By the end of the song, no one cares about that slut Lisa anyway; the cheerfully catty Rachel is the one all the boys want to hang with.
62. Chic “Le Freak”
(Bernard Edwards/Nile Rodgers)
C’est Chic, 1978
“Ahhh . . . freak out!” Although in the popular imagination disco is forever wedded to Saturday Night Fever, lapels big enough to shelter a starving African family, and bearded Gibbses, it was Chic who really brought the 4/4 glide out of the gay Harlem clubs and into the coke-snorting mainstream. And this is as good and smooth as disco ever got: orchestral swirl and soar, knotty bass workouts, black women singing smolderingly, and underneath it all the unstoppable high-hat/snare heartbeat. As in the other great stylish pop ménage of the 70s, the men did all the heavy lifting — songwriting, arrangement, production — and the girls looked hot and sang in breathless harmony. The lyrics don’t really matter — it’s disco, remember? — but this is the great self-reflexive song of the genre, literally inviting everyone down to Studio 54 where they could do “the Freak” (intentionally recalling fifteen-year-old dance-craze numbers like the Twist or the Mashed Potato, but with a druggy gay subtext for those who knew), and even comparing the then-new disco scene to the swing-dance contests that used to be held at the Savoy Ballroom in the 40s, where the big bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie would bring the crystalline, impeccably-arranged funk all night long. Correspondingly, Birdland was CBGB’s.
61. Derek & the Dominos “Thorn Tree in the Garden”
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970
I’m fully aware of the irony of choosing a track from Eric Clapton’s best album that doesn’t feature Clapton either singing or playing. But the Dominos really was a band, even if extremely short-lived. Bobby Whitlock, the songwriter and singer, is one of the central figures (along with drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Jim Keltner) in a loose aggregation of musicians, session players, stars and roadies who were responsible, among other things, for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, most of Delaney & Bonnie’s output, Leon Russell’s Shelter People recordings, Derek & the Dominos’ work, and even Exile-era Rolling Stones. He was discovered by Delaney Bramlett in a Deep South juke joint, where his unfettered howl and aching falsetto, married to an almost punk-rock honky-tonk piano style, made him one of the famous Friends of Delaney & Bonnie. His solo material, captured on two 1972 albums that I never get tired of listening to, alternated between Stax-on-amphetamines hard rock and quiet, impossibly tender ballads like this one. Like many of the great singers of the 60s and early 70s, he made no distinction between country, blues, rock, and soul, and all of it is present in his boozy, heartachey voice. And then he breaks into that shivering falsetto, and Duane Allman’s guitar, almost whispering behind him, follows. It’s transcendent, is what it is, and it’s the best argument for rock & roll the guitar gods ever produced.
60. Wings “Jet”
(Paul McCartney/Linda McCartney)
Band on the Run, 1973
Positioned midway between the Electric Light Orchestra’s self-important pomp-rock and the goofy glam of bands like Chicory Tip, this is probably Paul McCartney’s most recognizable post-Beatles “rock” song (as opposed to power-ballads like “Maybe I’m Amazed” or snooze-fests like “Mull of Kintyre”), and makes the definitive argument for his continued relevance, as far as I’m concerned. He retains the clever rhyming patterns that only he and Elvis Costello have ever really been successful with this side of the 1940s, and while the lyrics don’t make much sense on their own (so the girl’s name is Jet? and you thought her father was a lady? what the hell?), they provide the necessary lightweight balance for the otherwise-turgid dynamics of the song. Wings, of course, was never a real band, but Paul, Linda, Denny, and the studio hires could fake one convincingly — and the further away we get from the arrogant rock-snob elitism of the late 60s and early 70s, the less that kind of thing matters when all that’s left is the music. And the music here is sincerely great, 70s rock wrapped up in one big tidy pop package, bridging the gap between humorless, lunkheaded hard rock and the sharp, production-heavy wit of acts like 10cc. And there is a glammy stomp buried back in the mix; or am I just thinking that because the word “suffer-agette” inevitably recalls David Bowie’s greatest glam stomper?
59. Curtis Mayfield “Freddie’s Dead”
Blaxploitation is a curious thing. The very word gives off mixed signals: on the one hand, there’s the “I’m black and I’m proud” connotations that lowbrow auteurs like Melvin Van Peebles cultivated; but on the other hand, there’s an undeniable “watch the darkies beat each other up” vibe that satisfies a primitive racist jones for behaving badly in a vicarious way through black people, who are morally degraded and so can’t be expected to know any better. (In the racist’s mind, that is; and not that anyone thinks this consciously, but the remnants of minstrelsy cast a long shadow.) You have to think that Curtis Mayfield, unquestionably one of the greatest progressive black voices of the era, was aware of this, and deliberately turned the soundtrack to Superfly, a wannabe-noir glorification of ghetto cocaine-pimping, into a socially conscious record documenting the psychological and spiritual toll of the drug-dealing lifestyle. And yeah, viewed through modern hip-hop eyes there’s kind of a Bill Cosby-ish paternalism to it some of the lyrics, but damn, dawg, truth-telling’s never sounded so hip. His inimitably sweet falsetto glides over the most gorgeous cinema-funk not produced by Isaac Hayes or Norman Whitfield, using studio tricks worthy of David Axelrod or Jack Nietzsche for a lush soundscape that retains an urban, soulful grit. Just gorgeous.
58. Chi Coltrane “Thunder and Lightning”
Chi Coltrane, 1972
I really had no idea what to expect when I found this record in the Female Vocal section of one of the local vinyl paradises. I bought for two reasons: I’m a compulsive collector of music from 1972, and I wondered if she might somehow be related to that other Coltrane. (Answer: unless her ancestors owned his, probably not.) Apparently this hit the charts back when, but I’d never heard it; it’s gospel-pop not unlike Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move,” but harder-rocking and less beholden to Brill Building tradition. And she’s got a better voice, a honeyed growl that owes as much to deep soul singers like Barbara Acklin and Irma Thomas as to white singer-songwriters like King or Laura Nyro. But this is no Sixties pastische: the piano-thumping velocity of the thing, the honking saxophone, the streamlined, bubbly production all smell like crisp 70s vinyl to me. (That’s not so much synesthesia as sense-memory, actually.) Aside from her one-hit-wonderish debut, Coltrane was only somewhat successful; she released a handful of albums and like many, found more fame, adulation, and money on the European circuit, where being white didn’t preclude her from being a soul singer, and being female didn’t preclude her from rocking. But she never bothered the U.S. charts again.
57. Gang of Four “Damaged Goods”
(Gang of Four)
Punk is good, we’re not knocking punk, but (setting aside the issue of defining the thing at all; we talking New York, London, or what, here?) when you get down to it, it’s really only interesting as a corrective to the larger rock scene, or as a framework for further exploration. And that’s what this is, both of them at once: the first great punk-funk song, stripping the heady symphonic bliss of disco down to a numbing Krautrock bassline, but then amphetamined, bringing both the rhythmic speed and the abrasive guitar noise that a post-Pistols Britain required to be taken seriously. Gang of Four was remembered for the longest time mostly as an agitprop postpunk band, leftists with a skitterish, difficult-to-take-hold-of sound. When I first wanted to listen to them, I had to buy imported CDs. Then the great dancepunk revolution of 2003 ocurred, and suddenly they’re just a quirky pop band. Which they always kind of were (only a fool takes postpunk rhetoric at face value) , but this is the only time they ever really sang about relationships, and of course it’s in a quasi-clinical way using metaphors from capitalist economics. They meant to be preaching revolution, but a quarter-century later, it’s no longer incendiary, unless you mean burning up the dance floor.
56. Badfinger “No Matter What”
No Dice, 1970
I’ll go ahead and say it: I hate power-pop. Matthew Sweet, Weezer, Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, Fountains of Wayne, the New Pornographers, whatever: thank you for your interest, but we already have a Beatles. No further applicants are required at this time. But wouldn’t you know it — dial back thirty years, and the most explicit violation of the Beatles’ still-warm corpse is okay by me. It’s probably the production, to be honest; no guitar has sounded like that — both ringing and crunchy at the same time, without being the least bit glossy or “heavy” — on record since about 1976. And nobody else has emulated Paul McCartney’s singing style with such naked admiration (except Phil Keaggy, but that’s a different list), nobody has ever replicated George Harrison’s simple, elegant solos so effortlessly, and even the drummer sounds like Ringo, for crying out loud (though it’s the handclaps that pull of a reall Starkeyism). And the lyrics are nonsensical-but-meaningful in the best Lennon/McCartney tradition. But remember, a little of this goes a long way; I can’t think of any power-pop act post-R.E.M. that pushes these kinds of buttons. It’s in no way true that the first are always the best (three words: Sugar Hill Gang), but when it comes to gooey, slavish adoration, you need to at least place. Eventually, imitation just becomes the most sincere form of necrophilia.
55. David Bowie “Aladdin Sane”
Aladdin Sane, 1973
The piano. The piano. The piano! There are lots of reasons to pick about ten or fifteen different David Bowie songs for a list like this, from sugar-rush pop immediacy to Eno-macking avant-garde cred, but ultimately, I had to ask myself what Bowie song I’d be least willing to live without, and the question answered itself. Because while Marc Bolan might have invented glam’s androgynous stomp, and Roxy Music melded high-camp imagery to avant-pop to create a new kind of sleekly seductive art-rock, ultimately it is Bowie the wily, cunning, and visionary pop Proteus who struck glam’s varied threads (fey homoeroticism, space-age metaphorics, Gene Vincent revivalism with a souped-up, ballsy crunch, and the sound-based, essentially unmeaning lyrics that borrow equally from Dylan and the psyechedelic Lennon) into a lasting form, or at least something bigger than its constituent parts. And while there’s a wobbly 50s boogie-woogie rumble at back of this song, it’s the insanely atonal, Cecil Taylor-derived piano solo that drives home Bowie’s — and glam’s — precisely nuanced fusion of pop with the cutting edge. It’s a torch song for an androgynous alien (yes, another one), invoking Broadway and Hollywood shibboleths, the dead glamour of black-and-white movies, and a playful pun on “a lad insane.” It retains even more meaning for me, however, in a post-AIDS era; without getting all Angels in America, it reads to 2006 ears like a prescient lament for a devastated gay culture.
54. Donna Summer “I Feel Love”
(Pete Bellotte/Giorgio Moroder/Donna Summer)
I Remember Yesterday, 1977
The most important thing about this song may be the experience I had when I first heard it. I’d burned it to a compilation CD without listening to it first (a bad habit for a downloader, yes), and was turning onto the freeway when the first synth line washed up, and then the sequencer rhythms hit. “Aw shit,” I said out loud as I banged the steering wheel, “I downloaded a techno remix.” It sounded exactly like last month’s Italian 12”. But no; this was the real thing, the first all-synthesized disco hit, the missing link between disco and techno, between funk and electronica, between Kraftwerk and Derrick May. Donna Summer’s mostly remembered in my whitebread only-dances-at-weddings world for “She Works Hard for the Money,” which is false street-drama, brassy, sassy, and not terribly classy: Bruce Springsteen on the dance floor. I’d had no idea she could also do this lovely post-coital coo, which sounds more like post-millennial trance than anything I’d ever associated with the intervening years of disco, techno, and dance-pop. And there is a slow, seductive drama to it, a rise and fall that is distinctly coital, but also very, very modern, urban, technocentric, and — in that sense — distanced from actual human contact. It’s a lovely, literary idea of sex, much more than the sweaty reality. So in that way, it’s dancefloor romanticism at its peak, and very human indeed.
53. Bob Marley & the Wailers “No Woman No Cry”
Natty Dread, 1974
It’s time someone took Bob Marley back from all the ganja-loving dormrats at the local state university. Because he wasn’t just a quasi-mystical religious prophet, a dynamic and divisive political figure, a deeply-conscious spiritual leader, a passionate protestor against injustice, or a spokesbrand for an alternative lifestyle without any actual commitment to ideals outside the self: he was also a great soul singer. And a writer of great soul songs. It’s unfortunate in many ways that the commercial divide between the United States and Jamaica never allowed Marley space on black radio, where he would have fit in much better with the Marvin Gayes, Stevie Wonderses and Curtis Mayfields of the socially-conscious 70s soul generation than he did with the increasingly-lame hippies of dinosaur-rock radio like Peter Frampton and Eric Clapton; but that’s the market that embraced him (which means that for all their sins they did get something right), and even square old Time magazine eventually named Exodus the album of the century. But this is from before he took on rock production and before the white audience flocked to him, when a naked cry for justice and against oppression could be heard as great pop music as well, without all the circus and boomer-ego hubris of the Live Aid generation getting in the way. It’s a great soul song, nevermind the one-drop and the patois. It’s even — dare I say it — old school.
52. Wreckless Eric “The Whole Wide World”
For all the empty rhetoric spewed about the rejuvenation of rock & roll idealism, about anger, nihilism, indie credibility, and the society-changing effects of noise, punk’s great and lasting legacy has been the same as that of every great musical genre: it opened up doors to the hitherto-voiceless and allowed them a place at the pop-music table. One of the least-likely candidates for pop-music immortality, one of the most unreconstructed, and unreconstructable, voices in all of British song, is gutter-poet Wreckless Eric. In a different, significantly worse, world he never would have stopped busking on the Tube; but punk allowed him to score a record deal (with the heterogenous Stiff Records, who else?), a hit single, and a career. This is that hit single, his first and in many ways his finest song, a one-chord pounder that’s structurally primitive even by punk standards, almost tribal (or infantile) in its thudding attack, and one of Nick Lowe’s rawest, bravest productions. It’s long been an idle fantasy of mine that with the right glossy pop-punk production this song could conquer the suburban American charts, that’s how primally urgent (and almost unintentionally witty) its cry of unrequited romantic fantasy-love is. But of course, nothing could improve on the original, with its tremendous dynamic sweep, Eric’s gobbed-up throaty roar, and the barest contrapuntal pattern in the song’s final moments. As always, Lowe knew what he was doing.
51. Fleetwood Mac “Gold Dust Woman”
The apotheosis of cocaine-pop. (I almost feel I don’t need to say anything else about it, but of course I will.) Fleetwood Mac were one of the bands most frequently namechecked by the likes of Joe Strummer as the Enemy, the destroyers of the good, the true and the beautiful in pop music, and which punk had a manifest destiny to destroy in turn, thereby saving the world for rock & roll. While it makes for great rhetoric (and a few aging British critics still wave the punk-rock flag, bless ’em), as history recedes into the distance it’s all pop music. And this is — and always was — very good pop music indeed. Of course Rumours is one of the all-time great records, a SoCal fantasia of optimistic heartbreak, lonely friendship and exquisitely polished fragments of whatever image comes handiest, elegantly country-flecked and despairing, a beautiful comedown from the least satisfactory decade in public memory. The intricacies of the relationships between Mick, John, Christine, Lindsey and Stevie don’t interest me, but their vacant romanticism is a perfect metaphor for the slow crash-and-burn of the dregs of Sixties idealism. This song, naturally, is more or less a Stevie Nicks solo tune, and it’s appropriately narcissistic, apparently about herself (self-mythologizing, to use the kindest interpretation), and also, inevitably, about cocaine, the drug that turned the 70s into the 80s and turned this mush into perfectly-sculpted nostalgia, flash-frozen for maximum eternal appeal.
50. Neil Young & Crazy Horse “Like a Hurricane”
American Stars ’n’ Bars, 1977
I’m not real big on guitar heroes, as you might have noticed; not because of any righteous punk-rock anti-widdlywoo stance, but because I treasure songs as discrete sonic experiences, and 70s guitar wankery all tends to blend together after a while. The major exception, as he is to almost every other generalization out there, is Neil Young. It takes a peculiar sort of man to bridge the gap between John Denver and Dinosaur Jr. (I’m just talking sonically; for all I know J’s Denver and Mascis play poker every Thursday), and the most fiercely individual, contrary artist this side of Bob Dylan, the only figure who played a major role in the development of both country-rock and Amerindie, is it. His high, quavering voice, his spare, elliptical lyrics, his bone-dry melodicism, and his fearlessness in the face of untrod territory are the usual reasons to love him (and excellent reasons they are, too), but it is as a solo guitarist, sputtering, sparking, oblique, and piercing, that he should always be remembered. This song is one of his most bravura performances, a distended epic of feedback and dissonance that retains a down-home romanticism in the mere song (lyrics and melody), but is sliced open and spread across a vast, nightmarish canvas by his glorious spattering, whining, screaming guitar. Nobody plays like that and still gets played every hour on classic-rock radio. Nobody except Neil Young.
49. Stevie Wonder “Superstition”
Talking Book, 1972
Because of the opening hard-funk drum pop. Because of the extra-ultra-funky clavinet line that jumps on its heels. Because of Wonder’s voice, delerious in the first real exercise of his full, unfettered strength, fusing a young man’s joy at limitless possibilities with an experienced craftsman’s determination to get everything precisely right. Because the lyrics, which recite a litany of age-old American and British superstitions and then berates the listener for believing in them, are delivered with a passionate brio that robs them of their condescending smugness and in fact celebrates the strange and curious things that human beings are capable of believing and doing. Because of the stuttering charge just before the line “superstition ain’t the way.” Because of the big-band horns, playing lines that borrow equally from bop and swing, carving out a respectable adult space in the song to offset the funky, groovy hucklebuck of the rhythm section. Because it represents, paradoxically, both the rhapsodic fruition of Motown’s decade-long chart assault, and the slow, gasping end of Motown’s factory-produced, assembly-line pop genius; from now on, genius would be personal, individual, idiosyncratic, and beat a dignified retreat from the world of pop. And because Stevland Hardaway Morris wrote, composed, arranged, played, recorded, produced, and sang every atom of it all by himself — and, incredibly, it works.
48. Big Star “Thirteen”
(Chris Bell/Alex Chilton)
#1 Record, 1972
Modern indie begins here. Not with the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Can, or any other deep-cred act you can think of. Here, with the most famous obscurities in the 70s catalogue. Their music was not at all innovative, daring, or boundary-expanding; in fact, it wore its unremarkable influences (Beatles, Byrds, California pop) on its sensitive, hipster-sweatered sleeve. Their music was not at all challenging; in another world, they could easily have been as popular as Badfinger at least, and by now have probably have surpassed them in terms of song-recognition by having “In the Street” serve as the theme to the terminally-anachronistic That 70s Show. And their music was not at all popular, except in retrospect and with a fanatically-devoted cult. Thus the conditions of modern indie were born: backward-looking, heartfelt pop with enough guitar edge to play at rock & roll, and perfectly accessible except for the minor fact that the mass audience doesn’t really want to hear it. This is perhaps their most gentle and reflective song, a lovely ballad that would fit in perfectly with 60s summer-pop tradition except that this is the beginning of postmodern rock; rather than continue a tradition, it looks back and comments on the tradition, even mentioning “Paint It, Black” in the lyrics. Oh, and Alex Chilton had been in a chart-chasing garage-soul band before moving up an octave and going plaintive. I mean, totally indie.
47. Van Morrison “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”
Saint Dominic’s Preview, 1972
Jackie Wilson, as I hope you know, was a Detroit soul singer who notched several genre-mashing r&b hits in the 50s (“Reet Petite,” “Lonely Teardrops”), and struck gold in the 60s with “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The invocation of his name (and quoting his first big hit) in the first line is Morrison’s way of serving notice to the listener that this song is gonna be all about joyful celebration. And no white man has ever really done joyful celebration as well as Van Morrison. While his lengthy discography is worth exploring in all its labrynthine mystic, literary, and jazzy ramifications, it’s as a hedonistic soul shouter that Morrison reaches his peak. It’s fitting, by the by, that soul music, the American music par excellence, should be re-presented in all its celebratory glory by an Irishman, since all of American music is a fusion of ancient African and Celtic traditions, fully democratized and given a good solid showbiz urgency. The horn charts, while undoubtedly Stax-based, also have a Celtic knottiness, and Morrison’s gravelly scatting owes as much to the language-play tradition that produced Yeats, Joyce and Flann O’Brien as to Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Dexys Midnight Runners, practically the sole heirs to Morrison’s Gaelo-funk legacy, covered the song, and managed to make it sound self-pitying and dour. Is that the difference between Ireland and Northern England, or between the 70s and the 80s?
46. Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On?”
(Renaldo Benson/Al Cleveland/Marvin Gaye)
What’s Going On, 1971
Perhaps it’s too much to suggest that this record, by itself, permanently changed the course of soul music. Certainly the lush, delicate Philly sound was already brewing, and like-minded black artists like Roberta Flack in New York, Al Green in Memphis, and Barry White on the West Coast were each creating their own version of intimate, orchestrated, “smooth” soul. But after this record, soul changed permanently; rhythm split the scene with funk, and only passion remained; and the music became baby-making music. Which is ironic, not only because Gaye is often best-remembered today for superb baby-making music like “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing,” but because baby-making was about the furthest thing from the mind of this record, famously the first socially-conscious megahit from a black artist. It’s become the stuff of legend how Gaye fought, and fought hard, to produce the record his way, without any obvious singles or concessions to the radio audience. The radio audience ate it up anyway, of course, especially the lovely, glorious title track, which admits us to the hippest party in the universe — the one in which every guest is Marvin Gaye — and then proceeds to drop some truth on us in the most achingly beautiful falsetto known to man. The “brother, brother” lyrics are what grab your attention, but it’s the wordless vocalizations — “do bwee do doo do” — and constantly rising key changes that stay with you long after the record’s spun to a stop.
45. Dolly Parton “Jolene”
I’ll cop: it wasn’t till the White Stripes covered it that I even heard of this song. (The only Parton classics I knew were “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You.” Um, yeah.) But whatever you think of Jack White’s music, the man’s got impeccable taste. This is a lean, spare, hungry song, steeped in the Appalachian tradition that delivered songs like “Pretty Polly” and “The Banks of the Ohio,” given Parton’s trademark femme-centric twist (a trick she might have picked up from her time in the commercial wilderness of girl-group pop in the late 60s). Its unsmiling bluegrass backbone goes against just about everything Nashville believed in at the time, and would have been commercial suicide if anyone who heard the song could ever get its haunting atmosphere out of their skulls again. The lyric is more or less country-standard, if unusual in that the singer’s addressing a potential rival instead of the cheatin’ man himself, but it’s the melody, the rising tension in that repeated “Jolene, Jolene,” and the desperate urgency in Parton’s aching soprano, that give the song its unescapable wild-roots force. If she’d never cut another song, she would deserve a spot in the American-music pantheon; as it is, the music will endure long after Dollywood, 9 to 5, and the most-beloved bazongas in country music are forgotten.
44. The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”
The Ramones, 1976
The Ramones are difficult to write about because they require no explanation: just turn them on, turn them up, and they’re a two-minute world unto themselves. And the Ramones are really easy to write about, becuase they are so important and great and fun and necessary. And contradictory. On the one hand, they perfected punk’s noise + speed × simplicity formula, fusing a suburban-lowbrow aesthetic with an urban-hipster cachet, and were the first consciously punk-rock band. On the other hand, punk’s self-righteous anti-pop, anti-commercial, anti-mainstream attitude (as made famous by Maximum Rock’N’Roll) was the furthest thing from the Ramones’ ideals; or at least from Joey’s, and frankly who cares about the other jerks? Because the Ramones were a pop group, one of the greatest pop groups ever — and, like many great pop acts, it was because every song sounded the same, not despite — and they chased the commercial brass ring, though fairly unsuccessfully, and have by now become mainstream enough that this song is being played in a cellphone commercial. They were the first punk-pop band, too, and better than anyone since at it. The song can be read as death throes of glam (“blitzkrieg bop” is such a Bolanesque phrase), an “At the Hop” for teenage lunkheads with no prospects, a joyous call to arms for a new generation of pop radicals, and as a timeless pop chestnut every bit as thrilling as anything Brian Wilson or Phil Spector ever did. Your choice.
43. Kraftwerk “Neon Lights”
(Karl Bartos/Ralf Hütter/Florian Schneider)
The Man-Machine, 1978
Today, with the 12” aesthetic firmly in hindsight, this song can perhaps be appreciated better than in the days when a nine-minute song required extended solos, multi-suite compositions, or at least more than one verse to flesh it out. But with these guys it’s all about the texture, the subtle layering, the slow rise and fall of their warm electronic patterning. And one of their best, most evocative, and (yes) most minimalist lyrics. “Neon lights/Shimmering neon lights/And at the fall of night/This city’s made of light.” That’s it. But you should be able to hear a lovely soprano synth solo float up afterwards in your head, and if you can’t you need to listen to this song more often. People think of them as the godfathers of techno, but they were never club bangers, and if post-1985 electronic music must be referenced, then let it be trance (which was always more my style anyway). Without the insistent beat of the dancefloor, this has a meditative, running-water rhythm, and makes me think of nighttime driving on an urban freeway, perhaps on an off-ramp that arcs up over the city so you see it spread out before you, twinkling and flashing, beguiling and mysterious in a way daylight never is — or better yet, riding, so that even the minimal effort of steering and accelerating are taken away, and you may as well be floating.
42. T. Rex “20th Century Boy”
That opening feedback-laced blast is as heavy as pop ever got until 1991 and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and if you don’t think that’s a pop song, you haven’t been paying attention), and the rest of the song finds Bolan edging perilously close to pop-metal. Which, since pop-metal wouldn’t become the scourge of the planet until the 1980s, is okay; plus, the emphasis here is on pop, with gloriously indeterminate lyrics like “Friends say it’s fine/Friends say it’s good/Everyone says it’s just like rock & roll” (or is it Robin Hood?) and his wife Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” wail backing him up on the chorus. Glam never swaggered like it did under Bolan’s attentive hand; only he could pull off such macho posturing and have it seem fey and slightly ridiculous. Part of that, of course, is his lamb’s-bleat voice, part of it is the giddy nonsense of his lyrics, and part of it is that even with all the crunch and stomp, his music never plodded; it was always light on its feet, always ready to dance but never insisting on it, always with an eye on the screaming-teenager demographic that launched his inital early-70s success, but never pandering to it. He was perhaps the definitive UK pop star, with only one (noveltyish) Stateside hit, but a devoted and surprisingly wide fanbase; everyone from Bowie to John Lydon to Morrissey to Damon Albarn to Robbie Williams to Pete Doherty has taken cues from the original Electric Warrior.
41. Jackson Browne “Rock Me on the Water”
Saturate Before Using, 1972
Sensitive singer-songwriters don’t get much more sensitive, or singer-songwriterly, than Jackson Browne. The only voice of his generation that was never acclaimed as the voice of his generation (which is why he’s still tolerable), he produced some of the most deeply-felt, literate, complex lyrics ever set to basic West-Coast soft rock; and while his initial (artistic) success was with writing songs for others to sing (and no one who worked with Nico can ever be entirely uncool), he had one of the finer mellow/nice-guy voices of the decade. This song, which ironically was a hit for one L. Ronstadt, comes off better in this underproduced, piano-led version, which addresses social change, personal responsibility, religious tradition, and an inexplicable sense of hope in image-heavy, understated lyrics that don’t mind if you don’t pay attention to them and would rather just groove to the music. It’s that humility, I think, that I find so pleasant about Browne; unlike other singer-songwriters (cough cough James Taylor Cat Stevens Janis Ian cough cough), he never preaches or prescribes, and you can enjoy the music simply as music. This would be reaffirmed in a few years when he’d drag Frankie Valli out of retirement to give him a classic-pop edge, but it was never out of evidence for those with ears.
40. Magazine “The Light Pours Out of Me”
(Howard Devoto/John McGeotch/Pete Shelley)
Real Life, 1978
The best criminally ignored postpunk band in existence, Magazine is up there with Television, Wire, the Slits, and Gang of Four when it comes to pointing to new directions for rock to take after punk. Howard Devoto, the band’s mastermind, was the co-leader of the first version of the Buzzcocks (the ones that recorded the seminal Spiral Scratch EP), and he was the John Lennon to Pete Shelley’s Paul McCartney in a lot of ways. Whereas the Buzzcocks under Shelley grew progressively more spiky, amphetamined, and pop, Magazine was unafraid to be slow, crushingly heavy, or arty, using chillingly icy synth tones before the cool kids in Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had figured them out. This song, though, is almost brutal in its rhythmic force, with a huge numbing riff and several layers of jagged guitar noise overlaying one of the most powerful, trancelike drum beats in rock & roll. Its lyrics deal with the usual tortured spirituality that postpunk bands like Echo & the Bunnymen or Simple Minds (when they were still any good) delved, but it’s Devoto’s stentorian drone that sells them convincingly, and the relentless rhythm that will make you accept them as gospel. It’s one of those rare songs that will make you a devoted fan of a band on first listen (if you’re anything like me, anyway), even when squeezed into a random selection of other downloaded stuff — I’m pretty sure I first heard it sandwiched between Benny Goodman and the Bhundu Boys.
39. Fanny “Ain’t That Peculiar”
(Pete Moore/Smokey Robinson/Robert Rogers/Marvin Tarplin)
Fanny Hill, 1972
They never struck the charts, they’re decades out of print, they’re virtually forgotten by all but the most hardcore 70s rock-geek fetishists. And they’re the best band you’ve never heard. Everyone else will tell you that they were the first all-girl rock band signed to a major label, and while that’s true, it’s unimportant: what matters is that they sincerely rocked when the need struck, and made a superb pop group (on the level of Harry Nilsson or Fleetwood Mac) otherwise. Like most great pop bands, they often excelled on covers, and this very-70s update of the Marvin Gaye classic might be their finest moment — legendary producer Richard Perry often quoted it as one of his favorite productions. June Millington’s groove-busting slide guitar, Nicky Barclay’s honky-tonk piano, Jean Millington’s funky basslines, and Alice de Buhr keeping it all togther on the kit, plus whatever Perry wanted to throw in the mix, make for an intoxicating combination, especially if you’ve got it turned up loud enough; call it southern-style Motown-rock, with all the bursting melodic glory and rootsy jive that implies. They only put out four albums in five years before breaking up in frustration with the misogynism entrenched in rock culture — even after seeing them tear the roof off live, Led Zeppelin fans refused to believe that four girls could play those instruments so well. It’s time for a rediscovery.
38. Black Sabbath “Iron Man”
An obvious choice, perhaps, but even after hearing it on the radio hundreds of times (this and “Paranoid” are, natch, the only Sabbath that ever get played), I can’t possibly get enough of its heavy, metal thunder. And no, it’s got nothing to do with the Marvel superhero; if you must find a cartooning connection, it may be based on the same English childrens’ book that Brad Bird’s animated feature The Iron Giant was. But screw all that: it’s fucking cool. Iommi’s guitar is as slow, as heavy, and as dark as molasses, and the primitively mechanical stomp of the rhythm section makes me think of Miyazaki-mecha, or of steampunk robot armies. And Ozzy is appropriately melodramatic, wailing like some crazed hobo-prophet, a John the Baptist for the titular Iron Man, and getting surprisingly thoughtful about the monster’s emotional life. I don’t listen to a whole lot of metal, as you might be able to tell, and part of the reason is because Black Sabbath fulfills just about all my metal needs. But then I hardly think of them as metal; they’re just another great 70s band, like ELO, Thin Lizzy, or Parliament, that found an indelible, unmistakable sound that worked perfectly for them and plowed that furrow to rich reward, artistically as well as (presumably) financially. Oh, and they don’t exist after Ozzy left. (On the other hand, neither does he.)
37. Todd Rundgren “Hello, It’s Me”
I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s a song that screams “Nineteen-Seventies” more loudly or clearly than this one. Even the bass sounds five years older than I am. The fact that it was played during Topher and the redhaired girl’s first kiss on the pilot of That 70s Show only proves my point (and incidentally proves what a goddamn nerd I am). That bouncy, vaguely spacey piano line, the Bacharach-on-cocaine horns, the stomachchurningly wishy-washy “it’s important to me/that you know you are free” line, the black backup singers, Rundgren’s white-geek voice reaching for the highest notes he can: all very Seventies, very nice, very pop, very normal. Except, of course, that Todd was anything but. While “Hello, It’s Me” was on the one side (out of four sides) of Something/Anything? that was touched by hands other than the Rund-man’s, his cracked-prodigy fingerprints are still all over it. Holed up in a motel room for weeks on end splicing tape together, recording pianos, guitars, drums, everything he could think of, and high on any combination of whatever that famously illicit decade could provide, he produced what might be the greatest romantic pop song of the decade, managing in one swoop to beat the Beatles, Bacharach, Goffin/King, and the California sunshine factory at their own collective game, even while acknowledging the bittersweet letdown that the 70s was turning out to be. Not bad for a reclusive freak.
36. Siouxsie & the Banshees “Hong Kong Garden”
(John McKay/Kenny Morris/Steve Severin/Siouxsie Sioux)
Not many men can lay claim to having laid the foundations for an entire musical genre, let alone a lifestyle movement; and of course, the number of women who get a chance to do anything creative or individual at all in music is even fewer. But Siouxsie Sioux is one of those rare cases: not only the greatest female punk rocker (sorry, Patti Smith and Polly Styrene), she is also the single person most responsible (insofar as these things can be measured) for goth. Not that she’d take that as a compliment, probably — I’ve never met a goth who liked the word — but it’s also undeniable. As one of those people who reads all about an artist before actually getting a chance to hear the music, I came to this song ill-prepared years ago; I’d been told that the Banshees started out as a primitive combo, barely able to play their instruments in sync, and gradually evolved into one of the more sophisticated, elegant, and atmospheric bands in the world. That’s all kinds of rubbish: this, their first single, is just as sophisticated (those chopping guitars!) and atmospheric as it has any need to be. Elegance is simply off the table at this point; it is, after all, a song about Orientalism as both a hoary set of cultural stereotypes and as a point of living fact in the low-rent multicultural epicenter of London. I suppose if you really wanted to you could make an argument for this being casually racist (in the same vein as the Cure’s “Killing an Arab”), but why bother when you can just listen to Siouxsie’s deathless chanting?
35. Janis Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee”
(Fred Foster/Kris Kristofferson)
It can be easy enough to feel that Janis is less important than Columbia’s posthumous hard-sell of her legendary status would claim. Unlike Jimi Hendrix, she made no technical innovations and created no world-conquering genres; unlike Jim Morrison, she has no self-sustaning mythology, high-art aspirations, or half-baked Oliver Stone movie to cement her legacy. Although she’s usually namechecked with those other two rock & roll junkie deaths as one of the signifiers of the cultural move away from Sixties optimism, she never really belonged to the Flower Power generation; she was a gutbucket blues singer, a soul mama whose corrosive skinny-white-girl voice speaks more to years of hitting the bottle than to any hipper form of hallucinogenics, a low-rent Texas version of turn-of-the-century vaudeville divas like Sophie Tucker or Eva Tanguay. Her example allowed white women to sing rock (not that they ever hadn’t), and her incredible technical control of her voice betrays a master craftswoman. This song, though, is a fitting epitaph, even as it marks a turned corner into a career path not followed up: it’s a country song (in the newly-folkorized tradition that Kristofferson, as well as others, was then solidifying), but she treats it like a jazz singer, especially in the lengthy scatting outro, where the four primary strains of American music — jazz, country, blues, and soul — are so deeply intertwined you can’t ever pull them apart.
34. The O’Jays “Back Stabbers”
(Leon Huff/Gene McFadden/John Whitehead)
Back Stabbers, 1972
Let me start out by saying that I do not believe a cooler opening to a song has ever been recorded. Those magnificent rumbling piano lines, then the Latin-funk beat, the thoughtful, jazzy, Santana-loving guitar line, and then the swirling Isaac Hayes strings, some horns to punch it up, all building up to the group-rapped line “What they doing?” — it’s Philly soul at its finest pitch; listen to it on headphones while walking and you feel like a combination of Shaft and James Bond, and what’s cooler than that? The song itself might not be particularly edifying — paranoid black nationalists might, and probably do, consider it elitist propaganda to keep black men from trusting one another and building any cultural solidarity (listen to it after listening to the Last Poets and it sounds postively retrogressive) — but then again, it can also be read as a metaphor for how black men have been betrayed by the rest of the world. If you need to read any meaning into it at all, that is — like most pop songs, it’s just a pop song, and the lyrics are just there to match the paranoid atmosphere created by the music. The proof of the pudding is in the performances, and the O’Jays knock this one, as they ususally did, out of the park, building a claustrophobic atmosphere out of their tightly-packed voices, with Eddie Levert’s feverish lead communicating a whole host of emasculating, then belligerent, fears. It’s as much funk as soul, and as much an episode of a soap opera as anything else; “Trapped in the Closet” got nothin’ on it.
33. Tubeway Army “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”
Gary Numan has been retroactively declared a seminal figure in the development of techno, industrial and electronic music of all stripes, and while that’s cool, I prefer to think of him as he thought of himself: as a teenage David Bowie admirer trying hard to top the master with nightmarish urban science-fiction phantasias. Replicas, the breakthrough record for his nominal band Tubeway Army (he dropped the façade with his next record, monster hit The Pleasure Principle, and Replicas can be found under “N” in the CD racks these days), was a dark fable of a dystopian London in which memories of relationships are erased and human connection is only available through robots made to look like humans, called “Friends.” There’s also something about the robots rising and killing, and some kind of quasi-religious stuff — like most concept albums, it’s a bit of a confusing mess and makes for better discrete songs than a full story — but you don’t need to know that to love this song, with its stately, buzzing synth riffs and glam-guitar atmospherics. Like any great pop song, it’s endlessly quotable (“and just for a second I thought I remembered you”), and noir images like “There’s a man outside/In a long coat grey hat smoking a cigarette” perfectly capture the seedy, rundown atmosphere of this emotionally stunted future. Although he hit the charts with “Cars” a year later, Numan never really recaptured the magic of this record.
32. The Rolling Stones “Angie”
(Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)
Goats Head Soup, 1973
A great many Rolling Stones fans (I’m usually one) would prefer to believe that they broke up after, say, Exile on Main St. They couldn’t — and never did —top it, anyway, so why should they have kept recording? But no rock band that could seriously be considered one of the greatest four or five bands in the universe could continue to record without striking gold almost unintentionally, of course. Goats Head Soup is the record where their consumption of everything under the sun began to finally catch up with their sound; but unlike the rest of their coke-snorting peers, they made a record that sounded like heroin: lean, stringy, hollow-eyed, but still muscular and hungry-sounding. (Cocaine is the drug of the successful, but heroin remains the drug of the desperate.) “Angie,” of course, is their most famous and best ballad, with Nicky Harrison’s not-at-all-pompous string arrangement striking exactly the right chord behind Nicky Hopkins’ after-hours piano playing and Jagger at his wasted, tender best. In college, another fellow and I used to do the crossword puzzle while waiting for class to start; once, when “Rolling Stones song” was the clue (and the only answer that fit was “Angie”), I started playing this song on my laptop. He arrived a few minutes later, started looking at the crossword, then glared at me. “You son of a bitch,” he grinned. “I wondered why the hell you were playing that.” So that’s why I couldn’t pick anything else.
31. Dr. John “Right Place, Wrong Time”
In the Right Place, 1973
New Orleans is, of course, the most important city in American history when it comes to music. (Sorry, Kansas City, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, Nashville, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis and Atlanta. You’re all number two.) But it can often seem more hermetic than any other city, relieved of the responsibility of keeping up with the times, free to pursue its funky old rolling hoo-hah till the last trump. (Or at least till Katrina.) Dr. John is only one in a long line of piano professors and grand voudou wizards that includes Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Jelly Roll Morton — not to mention the one or two other instruments that the Big Easy has laid a claim to the development of. He happens to be white, but he’s done everything he can to discourage his skin color from making much of a difference, refusing pop stardom when it could have been his (with, for example, this song), and keeping in close touch with the restless city on the mouth of the Mississippi that gave him his legendary funk prowess. This song is one of the many times that the easy, sludgy current of New Orleans music has floated up to the more rushing, reckless, clearer waters of the mainstream pop-music charts, and it’s one of the best. The rolling clavinet riff represents about the only concession to contemporary tastes; the rest of it is as specifically 70s as fried pig’s feet or Mardis Gras.
30. Joe Jackson “Look Sharp!”
Look Sharp!, 1979
Second only to Elvis Costello in the wave of brilliant, original, witty, acid-tongued, and musically adventurous young English singer-songwriters who came to prominence following the brief rule-rewriting that punk allowed, Joe Jackson is unfortunately mostly remembered as a classy new wave (in the VH1 sense) artist, the singer of Broadway-for-the-Eighties standard “Steppin’ Out,” and maybe by swing kids for his tribute to Louis Jordan, Jumpin’ Jive. But his original run of taut, nervy pop albums — played with a stripped-down virtuosity that acknowledged his classical training but refused to be shackled by it, and seething with a sarcastic vitriol that was never as layered as Costello’s, but never overreached as much either — are among the greatest run of records in rock & roll. At least four songs from his energetic, snidely wistful debut album could have occupied this spot with equal grace and fire; I chose the title track mostly because I love the kickdrum-and-piano middle eight, and because the lyrics are brash youthful self-confidence personified: taking no shit from anyone, sneering at the cautious advice the second person is offering, and dressed to the nines at all times — also, I’m a sucker for a good colloquial pun, and “look sharp,” with its double meaning of dressing spiffily and watching out for danger, is a superb one.
29. Labelle “Lady Marmalade”
(Bob Crewe/Kenny Nolan)
I should probably point out that I’m white, male, straight, and terminally unfunky. Yet even I can dance to this. And have. (Not in public.) Labelle were a consciousness-shifting act, on the level of Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic, who remain criminally underappreciated today, difficult to find even on compilations — except for this song, their only hit. This cold shoulder is partly due to the fact that their dialed-to-eleven hard-funk sound can be difficult to get into, especially on the less rocking tunes, and partly it’s leftover chauvinism from the 70s, when a tear-the-roof-off-the-mother act like Patti, Nona and Sarah was still looked down on for having a largely gay audience. (By the way, what the hell has happened to gay taste in America? From Labelle to Madonna is not an improvement.) “Lady Marmalade” briefly resurfaced in the worldwide pop consciousness thanks to Moulin Rouge, but its snapshot life story of an aging transvestite is both a bitterer and a better story than that cotton-candy fluff — and than Lou Reed’s condescending, daring-you-to-be-shocked “Walk on the Wild Side.” (The Bob Crewe of the credits, by the way, was one of the masterminds behind Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons a decade earlier. You think you know a guy.) Not too long afterwards, they gave up the high-camp space-age accoutrements and Patti became just another diva, belting out high-processed smarm for aging black boomers. Nona still kicks ass, though.
28. Tom Waits “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”
Small Change, 1976
It’s not a small trick that Tom — and you want to call him Tom, even after listening to just one record, that’s how convincing his friendly-neighborhood-hobo voice is — pulls off with this song: he manages to fully incorporate the lonely boozehound persona that he played (both on and off stage) to great conviction in the 70s — so much so, in fact, that it hovers on the edge of conscious self-parody — but the surreal, fragmented imagery of the lyrics (not to mention the actual drunken stumbling of the piano line) also point towards the increasingly arty, omnivorously apeshit direction he would take in the 80s. But he always had a way with a half-dozen words, and rhyming “creampuff Caspar Milquetoast” with “the IQ of a fencepost” deserves some kind of post-Beat Poetry award. He sounds tired here (which is part of the point of the song, yes, but), tired of the Everyman Barfly shtick, tired of not finding any answers in the bottom of a bottle, tired even of the stripper and her pasties on the cover of the album — tired, that is, of making up bullshit about himself and the world and then feeling obligated to live up to it (one reason he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older is that he’s lived up to everything, and can just make up bullshit from the comfort of the family homestead). So we get the bit of the Piano Man’s life that Billy Joel was too chickenshit, or maybe too successful, to tell us about, and it warms the cockles of the liver.
27. Richard Hell & the Voidoids “Blank Generation”
Blank Generation, 1977
This is a doo-wop song. No, seriously; underneath Robert Quine’s atonal, arhythmic guitar chopping and Hell’s wasted-hipster yowl, it’s a swinging 50s R&B beat, and then just to drive the point home there’s those falsetto “ooh-oohs” after the chorus. Sure, it’s doo-wop as written by Charles Bukowski and orchestrated by the bastard offspring of Link Wray and LaMonte Young, but it’s doo-wop nonetheless. And in the grand tradition of the great doo-wop songs, it’s terminally misunderstood; Hell wasn’t being nihilistic in calling his generation blank, but saying that they were a blank slate, capable of anything. (We’re supposed to fill in our own adjectives when he goes “I belong to the! . . . generation.”) Of course the possibility of the nihilistic interpretation was always there too, and Quine’s slashing, corrosive Stratocaster probably sounded like the end of the world to people used to Peter Frampton or Glenn Frey, but what did they know? If the Ramones get to take credit for laying down the definitive punk-rock sound, Richard Hell is the one who layed down the definitive punk-rock fashion, all tatters and safety pins; McLaren and Lydon only transplanted it to England. And he wrote great street-punk beat poetry, the epitome of New York punk, which was always much cooler and even artier, in its way, than the London equivalent.
26. Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”
Fear of Music, 1979
This is where the Heads’ white funk began to coalesce into something not just original, but world-changing. Sure, “Psycho Killer” can lay claim to being the first real college-radio hit and begetting Amerindie music in all its screwy, unafraid glory, and their cover of “Take Me to the River” pointed out that a black backbone, however transmuted, was essential to making their sound really jump as nervously as David Byrne’s voice, but here, with Brian Eno on the boards and Byrne’s first truly immortal set of lyrics — “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no fooling around” — the band set up a bubbling, herky-jerky groove and hung onto it doggedly. And Byrne spins a quietly paranoid scenario of a high-pressure environment filled in with low-key, everyday actions. It could be set anywhere in the world — and is, and has been, and will be again — but it also marks the emergence of a distinctively global political conscience that would be the banner of left-leaning musicians during the ugly 80s, from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts to Sandinista! to Live Aid. World music is such an ugly label, but Byrne’s and Eno’s gradual absorption of reggae, trópicalia, afrobeat, krautrock, gamelan, and highlife into the Talking Heads’ original mixture of John Cale with James Brown produced one of the wisest, loveliest, and — dammit — most danceable musics ever to inhabit the earth.
25. Elvis Costello “Alison”
My Aim Is True, 1977
The artist formerly known as Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus is, in my opinion (and the opinion of every right-thinking individual) one of the most creative, surprising, ambitious, intelligent, witty, and reckless in popular music — and has been for the last thirty years. This is the song that first proved he was more than just a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a sneer, the least punk song on his debut album (which wasn’t really punk either, of course; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that punk was one of dozens of pop genres he drew on to create his music, even from the beginning), and paid the ultimate at-the-time compliment by being recorded by Linda Ronstadt. This is the real version, of course, with John McFee’s sparkling guitar work setting a cool, reflective mood and Costello’s ungainly croak tempered enough to try a little tenderness. It’s a romantic ballad in feel, but there’s still enough understated menace (“Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking/When I hear the silly things that you say”) and pugnacious attitude that his Angry Young Man reputation was preserved for a few more years. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Costello record without wordplay, and the refrain “my aim is true,” repeated so many times that it grows slightly sinister, is a perfect early example: he’s both protesting the innocence of his intentions and (potentially) threatening murder. What more can you want in a pop song?
24. Warren Zevon “Werewolves of London”
Excitable Boy, 1976
Just so you know, it’s not that I want to keep listing only the big hit songs for cult acts, which makes me sound like I only know these artists from the radio or some shitty $7 compilation called The Best Seventies Rock Classics . . . Ever! (And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s the imputation of ignorance. Even when justified. Yes, I’m a haunted house.) It’s that, sometimes, the hit song is the best song — and also, in pop music, popularity does matter. Somehow. Warren Zevon, of course, is one of the all-time great cult acts, a man with a mean wit and the balls to use his Mellow Mafia connections in the service of cutting, vicious, visionary, and just plain wacked-out songs. This was his only real hit, a glam-by-way-of-L.A. mover, with that great minimal piano riff and a Thin Lizzy dual-guitar break — but of course, the real meat, as in any Zevon song, is in the lyrics. Just about every line here is memorable, quotable, inspired, or simply strange enough to be the making of any other song; packing them all together like this can only be described as chutzpah. From the irresistably alliterative rhythm of “little old lady got mutilated late last night” to namechecking both Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney, Jr. (oh, and “his hair was perfect”) (and “Better stay away from him/He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim/Huh!/I’d like to meet his tailor”), it’s wall-to-wall brilliance. He was often more complex, more unsparingly cynical, and more sentimental, but he was never funnier.
23. Sly & the Family Stone “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”
There was a period when I was at one of my lower ebbs emotionally and financially, when I played Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits (the 1970 compilation) nonstop in my car for about three weeks, never even considering changing it out (to compare, I normally get antsy if I have to listen to a single genre of music for more than an hour). Only twelve songs, and it was over in forty minutes, and I never once reached for the eject button once this song faded out, the whirr of beginning over sounded, and “I Want to Take You Higher” blasted out again. Setting aside the sheer physical impossibility of preventing “I Want to Take You Higher” from playing on, Sly & the Family Stone from 1966 to 1970 are the greatest band in the world for handling depression. It’s not that they don’t acknowledge it — it’s that they can stare it down, smiling widely, because they have distilled and bottle the very essence of joy itself, and it is in their music. There is no other band that can make that claim. None. This is their last joyful song, and its heavily funky, popping bassline points the way towards their later heavy, druggy, molasses-slow music — which is just as good, in its way, but terrible for combating depression. The sentiment of the lyrics (universal gratitude for selfhood) is, amazingly, sincere, and the quick run-through of their previous hits more or less clears the decks, and makes way for the new, different, and not particularly joyful decade to come.
22. Suzi Quatro “Can the Can”
(Mike Chapman/Nicky Chinn)
In the years between Janis Joplin and Joan Jett, very, very few women rocked. Loads of women sang, belted, and even shouted, and not a few played any number of instruments well and loud and fast. But only a bare handful actually managed to rawk — which, considering that it was more or less the Decade of Rock, is even more embarrassing for latter-day wannabe-feminists like me. Good thing there was Suzi Quatro. If you think of her as just a glitter-band mogul-made pop-tart riding the bubblegum-glam wave established by the Sweet, Slade, and Gary Glitter — well, yeah, she was that. But she was also an experienced rock & roller, having led garage bands in Detroit’s notoriously raucous scene (Bob Seger, the Stooges, the MC5, and Mitch Ryder were no accident) during the 60s, and her image as a sexy leather-clad bitch was of her own devising. Like the Walker Brothers, the Pretenders and the Strokes, she went to England to break huge, and it worked — the Chapman/Chinn songwriting and production team gave her of their best, which was pretty damn good. The swinging Bo Diddley toms and crunchy goodness of the guitars are what initially sells the song, but check how it just keeps rising — by the end, she’s flat-out screaming. “Honey! Honey! Honey! Honey! Honey!” It’s probably about putting out — hey, slut-pop didn’t start with Britney (or Madonna), you know — but Suzi’s aggressive presence makes it sounds like a radical feminist stance.
21. Ultravox “Hiroshima Mon Amour”
(Warren Cann/Billy Currie/John Foxx)
Ha! Ha! Ha!, 1977
They are the forgotten band, the missing link between Roxy Music and Duran Duran, the inventors more or less single-handedly of the fey, mysterious New Romantic aesthetic. And this song is where it happened. The record, which came out the same year that Never Mind the Bollocks did, is mostly unwieldy, overlong postpunk which thinks it’s more abrasive and transgressive than it is — and then this song is tacked on the end of it, and we’re in another world, a cooler, more well-designed world, with a grey frost in the air and the sound of faraway machinery. John Fox’s elegant cut-rate Ferry voice moans fragmented images inspired by Alain Resnais’ foundational text of New Wave cinema (this is where the connection lies, if there is one, between the two New Waves), and a lush synthesizer creates a vast featureless space around him. Then comes the saxophone solo. Played by a guy named cc from the incredibly obscure and apparently-unrecorded band Gloria Mundi, it’s reminiscent of Andy Mackay’s playing in Roxy Music, but it’s also astonishing how well it matches the cold, limited palette of the synthesized backdrop — never has a sax been played with so much fire and generated so little heat. It’s a groundbreaking song, taking the arty lushness of Eno, Bowie, and Roxy Music and whittling it down to fit into the smaller, less pretentious pop arena created by punk. And it just floats.
20. Yes “Roundabout”
(John Anderson/Steve Howe)
Name one other prog-rock epic you can dance to. And I don’t mean tap your toes, sway groovily, or execute a stately pas de deux. I mean dance — ass shaking, feet moving, and on the “in and out of the lake” breakdowns you can actually headbang if you’ve a mind to. Chris Squire’s knotty, heavy bass playing is as funky as Bootsy Collins or Larry Graham, Bill Bruford rocks mightily on the kit, and even Rick Wakeman — yes, Rick Wakeman — acquits himself with some Bernie Worrell-esque flashes of genius on the organ. And then there’s Steve Howe and Jon Anderson. Howe is competent enough — his acoustic picking on the downbeat section verges on the beautiful — but Anderson is at best an acquired taste, and it’s actually a compliment to say that he doesn’t (and perhaps can’t) ruin this song. Anyway. Progressive rock, in its ideal form, was supposed to take rock music into conceptual and harmonic territories that only compositional (classical) and jazz music had previously broached; its failure was twofold: first, no progressive band was as intelligent or forward-thinking as the leading composers and jazz musicians of the time, and second, rock & roll is an unsteady footstool to pile towering structures upon. Prog was best when it ignored the conceptual hooey and went (like all great rock) for the jugular. Like this.
19. Johnny Thunders “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”
So Alone, 1978
A jet boy in a beaten age, the scruffiest and most forlorn New York Doll never fulfilled the promise of his best work, and became just another junkie casualty in the unrocking ’90s. He made several valiant attempts after the implosion of his original band, though, spitting up a gloriously noisy Heartbreakers album in 1977 (casually bridging the distance between New York punk and London punk, not to mention their roots in good old rock & roll), and then released a more measured, wary solo record a year later, on which appeared the finest and most heartbreaking punk ballad ever written or recorded. That’s not an oxymoron: one favorite meaning of punk is “stripped down to essentials,” and for fifteen years of wildly uneven concerts he usually played this song solo on acoustic guitar. This original album version isn’t quite as shatteringly or beautiful as most live versions you can find; it’s overproduced, tries too hard to rock, and goes on too long. But Thunders was nothing if not adaptable; he makes it work, using his trademark bleeding-fuzz solos to underscore the pain and longing in the verses, and when the chorus kicks in over a drum line adapted from “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the stark simplicity of the lyrics can always kick you in the gut no matter how many overdubs there are. If you don’t know the song, listen to this version first, but then find a live version to fall in love with, L-U-V.
18. The Commodores “Easy”
The Commodores, 1977
How the mighty have fallen: Lionel Richie is today best known as the father of a certain unecessary celebrity. Conan O’Brien does jokes where “Lionel Richie” is the punchline. And even before all that, he was most famous for being a soupily bland sweater-wearing ballad singer in the 80s, a cross between Billy Ocean and Bobby McFerrin. How the mighty had fallen, even then. But from the beginning it was not so; the Commodores were one of the truly great funk/soul bands of the latter half of the 1970s. “Brickhouse” mostly gets played at weddings these days (wait, at weddings? Yes, at weddings), but its unstoppable dancefloor majesty is the equal of anything by Earth, Wind & Fire or Kool & the Gang. (Speaking of the fallen mighty . . . .) But it’s on this soulful ballad, which was intentionally — and successfully — written to try to top the r&b, pop, adult contemporary and country charts at once (though the country charts were only topped by a cover of it), that the Commodores really nailed it. From its lazily funky piano line to the smooth, pillowy horns, to the country swing of the rhythm, given a glossy urban makeover in the production but unable to hide its roots, it’s pitch-perfect and elementally satisfying. Even the fuzzed-out guitar solo is bliss; and Richie himself proves that once upon a time he could really sing. How great is a song when not even a Faith No More cover can ruin it?
17. John Baldry & Maggie Bell “Black Girl”
It Ain’t Easy, 1971
For about five years there — say 1968 to 1972 — white British rockers were obssessed with the music on scratchy old 78s, the blues and early country and folk and jug-band music represented most often by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Obsessed not only with that music, but with covering it, with getting their sound as close as possible to the wild, woolly original, but also without pretending the last thirty years hadn’t taken place. The Rolling Stones probably did it best most often, but any number of acts tried their hand at it — and often managed something quite listenable. John Baldry, though, had better credentials than most; he’d been playing the blues in England longer than just about anyone besides Alexis Korner. Just about anyone who was anyone had played in his band (including most of the Rolling Stones and two-thirds of Cream), and he had a great craggy voice. After years spent in the smarm-pop wilderness of late-60s London, he was revitalized by an amazing, rootsy record that was equally produced by Rod Stewart and Elton John. For the second track, Stewart roped in fellow Scot and Stone the Crows vocalist Maggie Bell to duet with Baldry on Leadbelly lyrics. The tune is usually more familiar as bluegrass standard “In the Pines,” but here it can chill your blood, especially when Maggie lets loose one of her astonishing banshee screams. And Rod’s house band from his brilliant initial period, particularly Sam Mitchell on slide guitar, tear it up.
16. The Temptations “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”
(Barrett Strong/Norman Whitfield)
In late 2005, not many weeks apart, I saw the Neville Brothers cover this song twice: once on Conan, and once on Leno. They were amazing, revitalized and given a furious urgency by Hurricane Katrina and the government’s horrifically inadquate response to it. But the real star was the song itself. I’d venture to bet that no other thirty-five-year-old protest song has aged as well, or is more heartbreakingly timely, than this one. (And it probably always will be, as long as humanity lasts.) The Temptations were the greatest black group in the world at the time, and had successfully negotiated the culture shifts of the late 60s by radicalizing their lyrics and cinema-funking their sound; Norman Whitfield is one of the more unheralded geniuses of the age. It opens with hoarse, distant shouts of “One two three four” and bubbling psychedelic guitars, but the tense tenor of the verses turn over to turbo-polished hard funk as the chorus is shouted in unison — and the horns get to play jazz-funk in the interstices. It’s a riveting song, searing in its catalogue of modern miseries but epically hopeful too (ah, Motown). But the best time to listen to it, I’ve found, is in my car with the windows rolled up, turned up as loud as my speakers can manage, so I can beg, scream and shout along with the lyrics. When it gets to “people all over the word are shouting end the war,” I choke up. Every single time.
15. Roxy Music “Remake/Remodel”
Roxy Music, 1972
I don’t mean to imply that they never did any better than the first track on their first album; “Virginia Plain” and “Love Is the Drug” are all-conquering behemoths, and even their 80s Eurocool hits are worth paying attention to. But they sprang fully-fledged from the brow of Jove, seemingly; no awkward missteps or influence-beholdening are on view here, on this intoxicating rush of a song that makes every needful case for Roxy Music’s staggering importance. Not just as sonic innovators, either — you’d hardly expect less with Brian Eno at the boards — but in applying the lessons of the most advanced experiemental music of the time to some of the most glorious pop music of the time. Though they’re often called an art-rock band, Roxy Music was, fundamentally and excitingly, a art-pop band, which makes all the difference in the world; pop can’t be pretentious, though rock frequently is. The sound of this song is the sound of a rock band incorporating the entire world of music into a definitive pop vision (the quotations at the end serve both as statement of intent — they will be as brilliant as the Beatles, as big as Wagner — and as a signal not to take them too seriously). The lyrics are astutely-composed nonsense (though “CPL593H” can sound revolutionary when shouted), but Ferry already sounds like the lovesick bastard offspring of Mel Tormé and Gene Vincent. And Eno’s wooshing, squalling treatments push all of popular music, politely but firmly, ahead a few decades.
14. Rod Stewart “Mandolin Wind”
(Rod Stewart/Ron Wood)
Every Picture Tells a Story, 1971
People are always asking me, “Jonathan, why do you like Rod Stewart so much? Isn’t he just another cheesy adult contemporary hack like Elton John, Sting, and Michael Bolton?” Okay, so no one’s ever asked me that (and one of these things is not like the others), but it can be difficult to explain my love for the first four albums of a man who went on to record “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Those first four albums, however, are masterpieces, showcases for an original brand of folk-rock that is broad enough to encompass blues, gospel, country and soul. And as a lyricist, he excelled at putting together just enough evocative, down-to-earth imagery (often highly colored by his own lower-class upbringing) to create vivid, if not particularly detailed, stories in the mind of the listener. But I love this song on such a deeply personal and potentially embarrassing level that I’m not sure I can explain why. It has something to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books being among the first to capture my childhood imagination, and something to do with the way the steel guitar and mandolin come in after that break, and something to do with the celestial key change in the outro; when he hollers “and I love you,” in that soulful rasp (which he hadn’t been doing long enough for it to be mannered yet), I feel like I’ve just finished watching Casablanca, or whatever the greatest romantic drama in the world might be for you.
13. The Undertones “Teenage Kicks”
Probably the most enduring rock ’n’ roll myth is that of teenage rebellion. “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?” is the matins, compline, and vespers of all true rock & rollers. In one telling of the story, anyway. (And let’s not forget that the line comes from a thoroughly Hollywood movie, a teensploitational flick that doesn’t even know about rock & roll; Brando’s motorbiking is set to old-fogey jazz.) But rebellion is all well and good up to a point, and then you gotta see what’s left. After every revolution, there is an retreat — for British punk, it was the Undertones, bringing the noise and the stomp not in service of the half-baked anarcho-nihilism of the Sex Pistols, or even the more fully-baked political heroism of the Clash, but in the service of all the old traditional pop values: girls and fun and hanging out with your mates. Unlike the founders of punk, they were teenagers, and were uninterested in the roiling mythological trappings with which adulthood invests youth; they were far more romantic, inarticulate, and blissful than any grownup band could be. Of course it couldn’t last; pop beauty never does. But for the space of three minutes and the most thrillingly bashed-out chords ever played by an Irishman (apologies to Van, Phil, Shane, and the Edge). Not to mention . . . if it’s good enough for John Peel, it’s good enough for me.
12. Wizzard “See My Baby Jive”
Roy Wood’s 70s material often gets lumped in with glam because a) the face paint and b) no one knows what else to call it. But it’s not so much glam as rock ’n’ roll circa 1963 blown up to cosmic proportions and danced around in. With pretty much everything else you can think of thrown in. He started out doing trippy whimsical psychedelia with the Move, then hooked up with Jeff Lynne and was responsible for most of the interesting bits of the early Electric Light Orchestra, and then split to produce a handful of brilliant, confounding, bewildering, lovely, and overblown (in the best possible sense) albums (as Roy Wood) and singles (as Wizzard). He drew from WWII-era swing, 50s rock & roll, surf music, easy listening, hard rock, British Invasion pop, theatre music (especially ballet), exotica, and studiotastic psychedelia, and then made like he was Phil Spector in 1964, with miles of echo and gargantuan, overloaded sonics bursting out of the tiniest possible space. This is one of the rare songs that doesn’t sound better with headphones — it’s too big for them. Ideally, it needs to be blasting out of a really kicking PA into the space the size of a football field at 98db or so. Only then can its swinging crunch really wallop you upside the head like it needs to. The sway and lilt of the music says 1950s malt-shop jukebox, but the overpowering size of it says 1970s stadium decadence. Call all the people to the dance; gonna have some fun tonight.
11. Al Green “Let’s Stay Together”
(Al Green/Al Jackson, Jr./Willie Mitchell)
Let’s Stay Together, 1972
Every note, every trumpet puff, every guitar lick, every choked-off falsetto moan, is perfect. The Reverend Al Green is, as everyone knows, the greatest romantic soul singer of all time, and the last great soul singer from the South. It’s ironic, of course, that the years of his success dovetailed with the end of Southern Soul as such — the end of the hard, funky, gritty stuff as perpetrated by Otis, Aretha, Wilson, Solomon, Booker, Sam and Dave, and thousands of lesser lights. And Motown up north was leaving Detroit and its signature factory-produced silky-smooth sound for the more varied, tempestuous, and individual sounds of its roster of superstars and LA. Al Green, man of God and ladies’ man, both at once, split the difference. He could make a love song — scratch that, a sex song, a sweaty, needy jump-your-bones song — sound like a prayer, and his prayers were just as passionate, urgent, and shaken. But like every really religious person, he’s a romantic at heart. None of this “I Gotcha” stuff for him, he wants to stay together, to cherish, to look past the pain and the tears and the betrayals and allow love (redemption, sacrifice, sanctity itself) to heal all wounds. Willie Mitchell and the Hi Rhythm Section create a cloud of tender funk for that gorgeous, aching falsetto to beg, weep, plead, and rejoice upon, and not only a new kind of soul, but just damn about all soul would ever be anymore was born.
10. Joy Division “Transmission”
This, if we must choose one, is as good as any other for the place where rock & roll died. (Long live rock & roll.) Joy Division is mostly remembered today for Ian Curtis’s suicide, the subsequent formation of New Order, and sounding more or less exactly like Interpol. But, of course, there was much more. Joy Division was the greatest-ever postpunk band, if postpunk can be thought of as a genre instead of a time period. Resolutely bleak in both tone and outlook, their sound was both chilling and agonizingly human (compare to, say, Nico’s 70s output, which sounds like ice and granite given voice). Peter Hook’s throbbing bass, Bernard Sumner’s doomy, atmospheric guitar and Stephen Morris’s fragmented, martial drum lines supported Curtis’s wavering baritone as he painted grim, despairing psychescapes with his lyrics — while they were undoubtedly a rock band, nothing of rock & roll’s original swerve and joie de vivre was left in their music; they were rigorously somber, expressionless, and austere. If rock & roll is basically about sex, then Joy Division was basically about death. And then, just to push the contradiction as far as it can go, this song contains the explosive chant “dance dance dance dance dance to the radio,” while a piano stutters and breaks down behind them. If you try, you can hear the vague beginnings of the morose dance-pop that acts like Depeche Mode and New Order (gee) would blanket the 80s with, but I prefer to think of it as the Beach Boys’ “Dance, Dance Dance” from the other side of the grave.
9. Blondie “Heart of Glass”
(Debbie Harry/Chris Stein)
Perhaps it’s ironic that the highest-ranking disco song on this list began as a goof by New York’s premier hipster-pop band and CBGB’s mainstay; but then Blondie set very high standards for themselves regardless of genre, and what was originally mockingly titled The Disco Song managed to capture and maintain the coked-out decadence of the Studio 51 era. In a decade of pop starlets who were famous as much for their hot looks as for their variable singing (Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, Carly Simon), Debbie Harry was an oddity: not only the most beautiful woman in music, but a fiercely intelligent, considered vocalist who made up for her rather thin pipes with an expressionistic, dynamic singing style that has filtered down to become the basic pop mannerism of today. One of the most idiosyncratic of all pop starlets, she could (and did) sing bratty punk, cheerfully sinister hard rock, sighing girl-group, and bizarre low-culture riffs of the sort that They Might Be Giants would later make their stock-in-trade, but here she channels Donna Summer and uses a the silvery top of her register to float above the quirkiest disco beat to ever go platinum; Chris Stein and Jimmy Destri create odd, slightly disturbing sounds in the far background while Clem Burke does his best Keith-Moon-scared-straight impression. And Debbie gets away with saying “pain in the ass” in a #1 hit single.
8. Randy Newman “Louisiana 1927”
Good Old Boys, 1974
The strings play what sounds like a selection from the works of Stephen C. Foster, the first great American songwriter (1826-1864), or maybe it’s derived from the opening lines of Show Boat’s “Old Man River,” which goes “here we all work on the Mississippi. . . .” But then the piano enters, hesitantly as always with Newman, and it’s the 1970s. But he’s singing about the past, about the South, about the myths and histories of a people and a nation, as he does, honestly and sarcastically (both at once), “what has happened down here is the wind have changed.” Cut to summer 2005, to today, to a world of associations and tragedy that Newman could never have predicted but which now are indelibly part of the world of the song. Change the president’s name, change the epithet “cracker” to another one (which Newman fearlessly spent the first track on Good Old Boys dissecting), and suddenly it’s headlines, it’s Kanye West saying the president doesn’t care about black people, it’s everything we instinctively understood the aftermath of Katrina to mean even though we didn’t necessarily say it out loud, that we would rather not believe that race equals poverty and that “they’re trying to wash us away” doesn’t just mean the preventable failure of civil engineering but the haste with which we all changed the channel, Middle America just as much as FEMA. In this context, Stephen Foster and Jerome Kern, whose songs were blackface entertainment for the masses, look positively enlightened — and Randy Newman looks like the prophet Jeremiah.
7. The Clash “Complete Control”
(Mick Jones/Joe Strummer)
Funny thing about punk, it was never pure. Hardly an original observation, perhaps, but today the Sex Pistols just sound like hard rock with a North London sneer and the Clash were three-chords-and-the-truth for the space of what, two singles? Joe Strummer’s shout “you’re my guitar hero!” as Mick Jones solos (the horror!) was a pair of fingers to the ideological “loud-fast-simple” purists who were already threatening to bury a revolution underneath the weight of dogma and schism. Which is fitting, because the whole song is a pair of fingers to their record label (who just reissued it along with every other single in a hundred-dollar box; guess who won?), who had released “Remote Control” without consulting the band. But unlike most such pissing matches on record, it’s also a proper song — fuck that, it’s a miniature epic. Already the most American of the British punk bands, they went arena-sized with this thing, all soaring chords and galloping drums. You could even say that it laid the foundation for the kind of widescreen emoting that U2, and by extension every rock band on the charts today, would later take up. But the Clash were still pretty damn punk, Strummer’s vocals a tangle of glottals and moans, and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s rough, thick production made sure it would never be mistaken for a Boston song. Which is as it should be; punk might never be pure, but it’s not punk without the rough edges.
6. John Cale “Paris 1919”
Paris 1919, 1973
Rigorously trained in modern composition and theory, Cale was one of the rising young stars of minimalism in the early 60s until he was sidetracked by the cacophonous rock & roll of the Velvet Underground (you’ll notice that there was a sharp decline in unlistenable squalling epics after he left the band). He went on to produce Nico, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, and Patti Smith, becoming one of the primary figures of underground rock. Meanwhile, he continued to dabble with experimental compositions with Terry Riley. And then he put out this album, without which huge swaths of (for example) the Divine Comedy, Belle & Sebastian, and the Decemberists would not exist. It’s literate indie-pop at its finest, and I do mean literate; listening to it is like half-overhearing a conversation between Henry James, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and Dylan Thomas at an exclusive West End dinner party with a very good chamber orchestra sawing away in the background. But a chamber orchestra also versed in pop, like a grown-up version of the Zombies or the Left Banke. Cale’s reedy Welsh-accented tenor is perfectly suited to the cagey, understated ghost story of the title song (which only gets the nod above all the others because it was the one I heard first), which makes me think, perhaps inevitably, of The Turn of the Screw, but also of George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert & Sullivan, and even Mary Poppins. Cale, of course, never did anything remotely similar again.
5. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”
Clear Spot, 1972
I’ve been told that there aren’t enough acts with underground or music-snob credibility on the list (not in so many words, but that’s the subtext); those people will probably not be mollified by my choice of the good Captain’s least-weird song, regardless of numerical placement. But the hell with them. This is one of the most moving, beautiful little songs ever recorded, a freak-soul ballad with gently odd rhythms and voicings, a straight-faced love song with surreal imagery that could be called Dylanesque (from around say 1964) if it weren’t so obviously its own thing owing nothing to no man. (Latter-day Tom Waits, though, can be extrapolated from his bruised caterwaul). And it contains just about the most beautiful use of marimbas in a Western pop context that I’ve ever heard. The uncompromisingly weird Trout Mask Replica is usually considered Van Vliet’s artistic apex, for much the same reason that some people tout the White Album as the Beatles’ best (more Beefheart is better Beefheart), but four years later he was lurching unsteadily towards the mainstream: Clear Spot also contains barely-twisted takes on hard rock, Stax-style soul, and funk (the title track is an alternate-universe Funkadelic track), and is one of his most purely enjoyable albums as a result. Not that any of them are unenjoyable, especially if you love that good old avant-r&b skronk.
4. Bob Dylan “Tangled Up in Blue”
Blood on the Tracks, 1975
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that every remotely complimentary comment about a Bob Dylan album over the past thirty years has used the words “. . . since Blood on the Tracks.” While a lot of that can be chalked up to boomer self-regard (if they loved it — and the record sales prove they did — it must be great), it’s also, wearily, true: this is the return-to-glory artistic validation that makes for a great last five minutes of Behind the Music. (Pity the story doesn’t end there, but we can’t all be summed up in an hour with commercials.) And the centerpiece, radio representative, and all-devouring juggernaut from the album, the song that announced that Dylan was back and kicking the aesthetic ass of every folkie-wannabe with a guitar and some half-baked poetic conceits (Don McLean, your fifteen minutes are up). It can even be difficult for me to listen properly to the song, it’s so familiar by now — but the extra concentration required is always worth it. The out-of-focus, time-shifting love story it chronicles isn’t much in straight dramatic terms, but as a sly, unhurried evocation of romantic relationships, historical meaning, and memetic associations (apparently it’s based on a Chekhov short story, unless that’s another of Dylan’s shrewd track-covering moves), it’s unparalleled, even providing cheese-rock standbys Hootie & the Blowfish with unearned style points when they quoted it in “Only Wanna Be With You.” Or am I dating myself with that reference?
3. ABBA “Waterloo”
(Benny Andersson/Stig Anderson/Björn Ulvaeus)
Guilty pleasure, my ass. Straight-up pop never got better than ABBA, and ABBA (the capitalization is essential; it’s both a reference to a rhyming pattern and an acronym of the first names of the group) never got better than this, their first hit single and winner of the Eurovision contest in 1974. Yes, Eurovision, the place where musical mediocrity goes to die. Things were better, once upon a time. I suppose there will always be haters — and the official ABBA® brand hasn’t made things easy for pure pop lovers, with the corny, grandma-baiting Mamma Mia! musical and their pop-culture status (especially in America) as a code-for-gay punchline — but just close your eyes and listen to the goddamn music, and the rest of it doesn’t matter. The song is all rise, baby, a thunderstorm of gorgeous sounds, from the power-chorded acoustic guitars and sparkling piano descents to the tight harmonies of Frida and Agnetha, warmly inviting (in a way that only 70s pop ever is) but still retaining the faintest frisson of a Swedish accent. Benny and Björn were master studio craftsmen by this point, loopy geniuses that didn’t know how to read music and just slapped down what sounded good. Which is why the song’s roiling combination of Beethoven chords, chugging jump-blues rhythms, and naïvely clever lyrical conceits is one of the purest expressions of unadulterated pop ever conceived, planned or executed. Ever.
2. The Buzzcocks “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone) (You Shouldn’t’ve)?”
And now for something completely — well, the same, sort of. The Buzzcocks were the greatest pop band to come out of the punk revolution. Famously formed in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ Manchester concert (which they had largely enabled), they put out one arty, distorted EP (which laid the foundations for British postpunk even as punk proper was barnstorming the nation), and then discovered Pete Shelley’s minimalist pop-music genius, without ratcheting down the punk. This is their most elegantly noisy jangle, a furious burst of wounded romanticism and elegantly violent heartbreak. Shelley’s adenoidal yelp paces the slightly soggy, high-school notebook-paper lyrics brilliantly (e. g. “You make me feel like dir-hir-hirt/And I’m hurt”), and the taut rhythmic patterning of the middle eight (I don’t think it can quite be called a solo) proved enormously influential; even bloody blink-182 did pretty much the same thing on “All the Small Things” — which is why I retain some lingering affection for the mall-punk hit. The velocity of the song is such that Steve Diggle’s Telecastered needly grace-notes barely register, but choirs of angels could scarcely improve on them; and of course the finest rhythm section in punk rock, with their Krautrock discipline and unerring sense of timing, makes the song, as it always did. The Buzzcocks barely made it to 1980 as a coherent group, but there’s never been a more blinding flash in any pan.
1. The Faces “Stay With Me”
(Rod Stewart/Ron Wood)
A Nod Is As Good As a Wink . . . To a Blind Horse, 1971
Taking the long view, the Seventies’ relationship to rock music is the same as the Thirties’ relationship to jazz: it’s the default music of the popular culture, and even when bastardized or watered-down it retains an unimpeachable vitality. Rock bands in the 70s are remembered for their excess in every particular: consumption of illegal (or just plain dangerous) substances, rampant egomania, sexual extravagance, and talent for uninhibited, unstoppable partying. No band was better suited to see the legend and raise it another dozen ounces of blow than the Faces; and no band could match the Faces for sheer working-class dirty-ass rock & roll mojo. This song, their one American hit and the moment of transcendence that every great band needs, is a cheeky satire of rockstar/groupie relationships in the lyrics, but nothing more than scuzzy sex with a backbeat in the music. There are no straight lines or clean surfaces in the song (or really in the Faces catalogue): Rod’s whiskey wail, Ron’s rusty-wire slide guitar, and even Ian’s fuzzed-out electric piano are practially a dissertation on distortion in the service of funk. And it is funk, greasy, grinding, sloppy funk: Ronnie’s melodic bass and Kenny’s battered drums, careening drunkenly though always in the pocket, ensure that. They were Stones- or Zeppelin-level rock stars, but they were also the lads from down the pub — they toured with an open bar on stage — and they knew the whole of rock music, from its roots in country, blues, and gospel to its latest permutations in metal, funk, and proto-punk, in their bones. But forget it all when Kenny strikes the snare and the band shifts into double-time for the outro: crescendo after manic crescendo (I told you it was sex) as each band member gets a sly, two-second solo, and Rod whoops ecstatically from the other side of the room. It’s grimy stadium rock, where the gutterpunks stop in for a pint with the cocaine astronauts, and rock & roll never dies.