A Century of Song is an attempt to summarize 100 years of popular music through 1000 carefully chosen tracks. Included within this list are landmark singles, stellar album cuts, huge hits, hidden gems, and more than a few personal favorites. Read the introduction for the project here, and enjoy the embedded videos and Spotify playlist.
“Tired of Sex”
A screech of feedback, drums recorded deep in the red, buzzy bass, and Moog synth. This was not how I expected Weezer’s highly anticipated second record to open. Their “Blue Album” had been such a touchstone within my group of friends, but while it rocked, it was crisp, clean, and polished. This… This was thorny and abrasive. I hated it. That was listen number one.
By listen number two, I was hooked, and with every successive spin of Pinkerton in the fall of 1996, I fell deeper and deeper into the record. “Tired of Sex” was the album’s clarion call – an anthem whose sentiment was wholly alien, but whose sense of angst was perfectly pitched. Famously, this band has never again come even close to matching its raw, coarse nature, and while that is disappointing on many levels, it ultimately sits fine with me. Two decades later, it still hits on the same level. Why bother trying to replace it?
“Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)”
The highlight of R.E.M.’s essentially perfect debut EP, Chronic Town, “Carnival of Sorts” may possess a handful of signifiers, but it sounds like nothing that had ever come before. Despite nearly forty years of “alternative” bands on both sides of the Atlantic following its playbook, it remains a thoroughly refreshing listen.
Over their thirty-year career, R.E.M. proved that they could be anything – at times morose, beautiful, and beguiling. The shade that they paint in on “Carnival of Sorts” is urgent. There is a tension to Mike Mills’ and Bill Berry’s rhythm work, one that is perfectly counteracted by Peter Buck’s sprightly, chiming Rickenbacker. Michael Stipe is as inscrutable as he ever was on the band’s early work, but there is an ominous sense expressed by the handful of words that actually come through to the listener. The rest, left in a shadow of ambiguity, only makes you want to lean in even more.
Did somebody say “ominous”? One of the finest early singles in a catalog that still may be the most impressive body of work by an American musician, “The Mooche” begins with a wondrously foreboding clarinet riff by Barney Bigard. However, even at this early stage, Duke Ellington possessed an unmatched capacity for mood shifts. By the time the wordless vocals of Baby Cox enter, “The Mooche” has shape-shifted into something else entirely.
In 1928, Ellington was arguably the premier live draw on the New York speakeasy scene, but he was also insanely prolific as a studio musician as well. With the first few years of “recording as documentation” behind him, Ellington pressed to move his music into more sophisticated, elegant directions. None of us will ever be able to hear the genius that emanated from the stage of the Cotton Club, but these recordings provide a strikingly tangible substitute.
“Ooh La La”
Here’s how great of a song “Ooh La La” is: I liked it even before I realized that it isn’t Rod Stewart singing on it. Knowing that Small Faces became Faces upon Stewart’s arrival – and Ron Wood’s not-entirely-dissimilar vocals – I figured I’d just have to give him some credit for managing to not ruin the track.
In an article on Wes Anderson’s Rushmore from a while back, I mentioned how “Ooh La La” gives the film’s closing scene a sense of resignation. Like that scene, the song’s lyrics are decidedly bittersweet, mildly problematic, and – ultimately – strangely endearing. Like Rushmore, it’s a coming-of-age tale – one tinged with regret, and the sad realization that our elders don’t always know better. After all, many of them enjoy Rod Stewart.
As the opening track to The Flaming Lips’ modern electro-psych classic, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, “Fight Test” serves as something of a mission statement for an album that often treads the line between optimism and cynicism. Trading in its parent album’s theme of good vs. evil, the song continues in the celebratory path of 1999’s masterful The Soft Bulletin, while acknowledging the limits on the power of positive thinking.
Musically, “Fight Test” finds The Flaming Lips reflecting the technological obsessions hinted at in the album’s title. Steven Drozd’s drums are heavily treated, and embellished by electronic blips, gurgling synth bass, and lush string samples. Pushing against these decidedly robotic elements, Wayne Coyne fashions one of his strongest melodies – with perhaps more than a little help from Cat Stevens – to provide a warm, human core to a song that grapples with the very notion of humanity.
Billy Corgan is a huckster. A fraud. A charlatan. In a revealingly honest moment from The Smashing Pumpkins’ appearance on The Simpsons, Bart comments – while watching the band play at Hullabalooza – “making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” Corgan knew this, and yet, for a few years in the mid-nineties, he managed to make surprisingly affecting art while pandering to a notoriously easy target.
There is nothing subtle about “Tonight, Tonight” – nor its parent album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. From its ridiculous title to its Victorian-era affectations, Mellon Collie wears its ambitions on its frilly sleeves. Following the low-key introduction of the instrumental title-track, “Tonight, Tonight” leaps out of the speakers. Its plaintive strings are calculated to tug at the heartstrings. Its dynamic shifts are designed to evoke beauty and wonderment. Its video aims to take the viewer/listener on a journey worthy of the song’s grandeur.
I was sixteen when Mellon Collie was released. I ate it up, and defended even its flimsiest moments wholeheartedly. For underneath its bedazzled facade was something that spoke volumes to me, and virtually everyone in my circle. As an adult, I’ll go years without listening to it intentionally, but sometimes, the moment and the music sync up. When it does – and those strings burst forth – I’m back in, willing to go along with Corgan on his fantastic, ridiculous voyage.
“Let It Happen”
As the lead single to 2015’s highly-anticipated Currents, “Let It Happen” faced a tall task. It had enough signifiers of Tame Impala’s widely-acclaimed 2012 album, Lonerism, but also found Kevin Parker ushering the project toward a more electro-pop, synth-oriented sound. Meeting fans of Tame Impala’s breakthrough half-way may have seemed like something of a compromise, but it made for one of the best tracks in the group’s catalog.
“Let It Happen” is a song built of fascinating contradictions. It’s lengthy, yet surprisingly compact. It’s spacious, but somehow borders on claustrophobic. It glides, but is continually moved by its propulsive rhythm. Parker had traded in dense, lush psychedelia before, often drawing comparisons to notable acts of eras long-since passed. However, “Let It Happen” showed him moving psych in an intriguingly modern direction.
I take no pleasure in including a song by Eric Clapton on this list. I find his musicianship overrated, his politics unsightly, and, quite frankly, think he’s a tool. If you need proof, consider his role in prompting the “Rock Against Racism” campaign, or, the fact that his greatest song finds Clapton essentially trying to “win” his friend’s wife. That friend happened to be the far-superior guitarist, George Harrison.
The first half of “Layla” is quite good, but honestly, the song would be nowhere near this list without its transcendent second half. Written by Derek and the Dominoes’ drummer, Jim Gordon, the piano piece that defined “Layla”‘s second movement is wonderful on its own, but takes on an added poignancy with Duane Allman’s piercing slide guitar work. It was Allman who also wrote the first half’s iconic riff, and one can make the case that it was his – and Gordon’s – song, every bit as much as it was Clapton’s.
Sufjan Stevens bared his soul in often-heartbreaking fashion on 2015’s Carrie & Lowell – an album that found Stevens reflecting on the strained relationship between himself and his recently-deceased mother. The path to that album was first laid out in this track from Stevens’ 2003 breakthrough release, Michigan – the first entry in his alleged “Fifty States” project.
The character sketches of Michigan helped to establish Sufjan Stevens as one of the most skilled and nuanced songwriters of his generation. Detailing the stories of the nameless inhabitants of an economically long-suffering region, Stevens employed a remarkable sense for detail and empathy. However, it’s on “Romulus” – the album’s most autobiographical track – that he showed the promise that would come to full blossom in his subsequent work.
“I’m a Believer”
Their second single – and second number one hit – “I’m a Believer” is one of the most exuberant pop tracks of the sixties. While The Monkees would provide endless fodder for heated debates over “authenticity” during their heyday, few can deny the effervescent joy of the group’s most enduring singles.
Written by Neil Diamond – who was just embarking upon a performing career of his own – “I’m a Believer” is a fine showcase for the vocal work of Mickey Dolenz. While Dolenz would also shine on the Boyce/Hart-penned B-side (#930), the buoyant optimism of “I’m a Believer” stands as a testament to the power of an irresistible hook.
Few jazz groups of the mid-fifties surpassed the one that was co-led by Clifford Brown and Max Roach. Anchored by Roach’s drumming, Richie Powell’s piano, and George Morrow’s bass, the horn work of Brown (trumpet) and Harold Land (tenor saxophone, replaced by Sonny Rollins in 1955) was given free rein to soar. It’s on the group’s first album where Brown – just twenty-three at the time of its recording – established himself as one of the most impressive young musicians of the hard bop era.
Each of the five tracks on Clifford Brown and Max Roach is a fine exemplar of the band’s considerable strengths. For my money, it’s the pacing of Brown’s self-composed “Daahoud” that pushes it above the rest of the pack. Brown’s soloing is dexterous and expressive, and the work of the rhythm section is similarly impressive. There’s a fluidity to the track that belies its complexity, but makes for a refreshing listen.
Brown and Roach would record four more records with this group – including Sonny Rollins’ Plus 4 – but tragedy struck in 1956 when Brown and Richie Powell were killed in an automobile accident. Roach would go on to a storied career that included – among other highlights – the epochal We Insist! However, despite the rich body of work that he would create over the next five decades, he would never again capture the jubilant heights of his work with Clifford Brown.
“Just What I Needed”
One would be hard pressed to find a better example of power pop than the debut single by The Cars. Written by Ric Ocasek – one of the genre’s critical practitioners – “Just What I Needed” perfectly matched studio sheen with several indelible hooks to create one of the defining pop singles of the late-seventies.
The Cars’ polished sound was far removed from the punk spirit that most up-and-coming bands were evoking in 1978, but it sidled up to the emergent New Wave scene – particularly in its iconic keyboard riff. Ocasek deferred to Cars bassist Benjamin Orr for the song’s lead vocal, which – when paired with the band’s tight and catchy performance – led the song to become a hit in the group’s hometown of Boston, before taking off nationally.
Those who know my tastes well know that metal is a perpetual blind spot for me. However, I know enough to say that “Helter Skelter” probably shouldn’t be considered the first metal song, as it’s often credited. For what it’s worth, Sands’ “Listen to the Sky” is both earlier and more metal than “Helter Skelter” – at least its second half is.
While The Beatles didn’t invent heavy metal, it’s not hard to see what subsequent generation of volume-obsessed Brits found so appealing about the song’s embrace of chaos. Paul McCartney had written the song in an attempt to match a printed description that he had read about The Who’s “I Can See for Miles.” Feeling as if that track had not quite captured the anarchy described in the blurb, McCartney set out to record the most radically noisy Beatle song possible.
Ultimately, “Helter Skelter” is a somewhat polarizing Beatles track. Lacking the band’s traditional melodic sensibilities, it’s the rare Beatles song that aims for a visceral reaction. It wasn’t until the 50th anniversary reissue of the “White Album” – with its new stereo mix – that I saw it as one of the group’s most compelling songs. Bringing John Lennon and George Harrison’s backing vocals closer to the forefront, the new mix finally sees McCartney’s hellish vision fully realized.
Generally considered to be among the second tier of Britpop bands, Supergrass arrived with 1995’s I Should Coco – an album that mixed the pop sensibilities of the British Invasion with the attitude and energy of punk. While a thoroughly enjoyable album, Coco is highlighted by a pair of anthems that celebrate the joys of being young and dumb.
The first of these tracks, “Caught by the Fuzz” announces itself with a roar of guitar and a breakneck pace that underscores the reckless abandon of the song’s lyrics. Gaz Coombs tears through a story of escalating bad decisions, though the ultimate consequences for his night of misdeeds seems to be little more than a lecture from mum. Just about anyone who was ever fifteen can probably relate, but even if you can’t, the hooks should pull you in anyway.
“Losing My Edge”
There are far sadder things in this world than a hipster growing out of touch, but James Murphy makes it seem like a true tragedy in LCD Soundsystem’s breakthrough single. Rife with references to artists, labels, and scenes that are touchstones to those “in the know,” “Losing My Edge” introduced Murphy’s unique blend of sincerity and sarcasm, while showing off his ability to sell electronic music to the rock kids.
While Murphy would ultimately reach greater heights on LCD Soundsystem’s subsequent albums, “Losing My Edge” remains – in many ways – the group’s signature song. It captured a moment in time in which the things that “informed” fans had spent a lifetime curating were becoming increasingly accessible to a new generation of listeners who may have been considered “casual” by old standards.
“Hounds of Love”
The title track to Kate Bush’s 1985 masterpiece, “Hounds of Love” is a stirring mixture of sounds, both electronic and organic. Warm and persistent cellos brush against atmospheric synth washes with graceful elegance, while Bush’s vocals soar above the cavernously reverberated drums. It’s deceptive in its simplicity, but the work of an artist at the peak of her craft.
“Hounds of Love” was the third song to be released as a single from the album’s virtually perfect A-side. While it’s occasionally overlooked by those preceding singles – “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbusting” – it’s an enthralling highlight of a thoroughly spellbinding record.
“Time Has Told Me”
The first song on the first album in a tragically brief catalog, “Time Has Told Me” is a fitting introduction to the enormous talents of Nick Drake. A masterful songwriter, remarkably nimble guitarist, and owner of an otherworldly voice, the once-obscure folksinger turned cult-hero truly was a “rare, rare find.”
While I suspect that most listeners will (justifiably) begin with 1972’s Pink Moon, Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left, is nearly its equal in terms of songwriting – if not quite matching it in intimacy. “Time Has Told Me” is hardly cheery by conventional standards, but for Drake, it’s downright chipper. There’s a sense of resignation to the track, but one that is lifted by the sparse musical accompaniment to Drake’s vocal and guitar work.
“Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken”
In the closing track to their 1984 album, Rattlesnakes, the Glasgow-based Lloyd Cole and the Commotions posed a compelling question: “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” Twenty-two years later, another Glasgow band finally answered the question, and in the process, created one of the great indie pop songs of their time.
Camera Obscura’s third album, Let’s Get Out of This Country, was the group’s critical and commercial breakthrough – due in no small part to the undeniable charm of “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken.” Tracyanne Campbell’s stellar melody is adorned with lush strings and other baroque pop hallmarks – highly reminiscent of yet another Glasgow group, Belle and Sebastian. It’s an absolutely irresistible track from an excellent album.
In the preamble for the A Century of Song project, I explained that I have already picked the thousand songs that will be on the list, but wouldn’t commit to their exact placement until their number was called. This track – Elizabeth Cotten’s signature song – was originally slated to be in the first entry, but staved off “elimination by placement” for ten rounds. It’s not the first time that its durability has been proven.
Cotten wrote “Freight Train” as a teenager – sometime in or around the nineteen-aughts – but did not record the song until the late-1950s, for her Folkways Records debut, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar. By that point, several other artists had recorded their own takes on the song – some even erroneously claiming it as their own – but the lived-in authority of Cotten’s take is definitive. Its release would help to make the sixty-five-year-old Cotten one of the least likely – but most deserving – stars of the mid-century folk revival.
When I was ten, my older brother and I lobbied for our parents to buy a cassette copy of The Who’s best of compilation, Who’s Better, Who’s Best. He had a friend who had recently seen the band in Philadelphia, on their “The Kids Are Alright” tour, and I was curious enough to help him make the case. I seem to remember promising that we’d pay our parents back for the tape, but I doubt that we ever made good on that.
That cassette was a staple of family road trips for the ensuing summer, and though I was most taken by the earlier singles that made up the first side, there was an intriguing sense of grandeur to a handful of songs on the flip side: the Tommy tracks. It would be another decade – literally, ten summers later – before I would hear Tommy in its entirety, but that trio of tracks (“Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and an abridged take of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” labeled as “See Me, Feel Me”) left quite an impression.
The Who were the first band from the sixties – the first from a time definitively before my own – that I ever got into. They were the first whose names I learned, and the first whose mythology captured my imagination. If we consider The Beatles to be a pop group – or something much larger than that – we must then consider the question of who is the platonic ideal of a rock band? What group best represents the attitude, volume, and reckless abandon of rock-and-roll, while also striving to push it beyond the narrow confines of its early years? There are a lot of people who think Led Zeppelin is that band. When I hear that, I shake my head, and think of the band that Zeppelin wished they were.