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.
At the height of their powers, Pixies thrived on the tension between accessibility and alienation. Making my way to the band during their post-breakup/pre-reunion years, that dynamic – paired with their scarcity/non-existence – made for a particularly thrilling discovery. While their never-ending reunion may have sanded off some of the band’s mystique, their best tracks still pulse with the excitement of irresistible chaos.
Take, for example, the opening track from the band’s masterpiece, 1989’s Doolittle. “Debaser” throbs to Kim Deal’s steady bass line, while Black Francis wails like a madman, dropping disturbingly cryptic references to surrealist French film in a track that kind of comes off like a love song – at least one of an obsessive nature. It’s wild, manic, and impossibly catchy – a formula that this band perfected, just before it became fashionable.
The Clash were among the first punk bands to sign to a major label – CBS Records, in early 1977. The move divided the band’s fanbase, and the London punk scene, leading to accusations of “selling out.” While the group’s deal would be notorious from a business perspective, it was the loss of artistic freedom that would ultimately prove most troubling to The Clash.
“Complete Control” was the response to CBS issuing the song “Remote Control” without the band’s permission. In a classic case of “biting the hand that feeds you,” Joe Strummer lashes out at the label for their deceptiveness and greed. It would be a somewhat qualified victory for the group though, as CBS would issue “Complete Control” as a single in September 1977. It was the band’s highest charting release to date, bringing CBS a much welcome return on their punk investment.
The highlight from their 2005 breakthrough album, Black Sheep Boy, “Black” is the finest track from the Austin-based indie rock group Okkervil River. Written by Will Sheff – the band’s songwriter and sole constant member – “Black” is a harrowing account of parental abuse, revenge fantasies, and perseverance.
Set to Black Sheep Boy‘s most rollicking instrumental backing, “Black” faces tragedy with a triumphant spirit. Sheff turns in a powerful vocal performance that adds gravity to the song’s already heavy lyrical content. It’s a cathartic centerpiece to an emotionally complex record – the strongest entry in the band’s catalog.
Pavement’s sophomore album – 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – found the group cleaning up their act from the lo-fi recordings that they had built their reputation on. There’s a decidedly suburban feel to much of Crooked Rain, one that is perfectly exemplified by this track – among the album’s finest moments.
“Range Life” would earn a degree of notoriety for its “disses” of other alt-rock acts, most notably, Smashing Pumpkins, who refused to play Lollapalooza in 1994, unless Pavement were removed from the bill – they were. However, the verse that contains those lines – considered satirical by songwriter Stephen Malkmus – is essentially a throwaway compared to the scene-setting of the song’s earlier verses. It’s there that the breezy perfection of Crooked Rain reaches its (near) peak.
“Masters of War”
Insightful, introspective, romantic, wise beyond his years… Over the course of a sixty-year career, Bob Dylan has been just about everything that a songwriter could possibly be, but never again would he sound as vitriolic as he did on this track from his first great album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
It was in the wake of Freewheelin‘ that Dylan would first be labeled as “the voice of his generation.” On “Masters of War,” that voice unleashed a scathing indictment of war profiteers, and the politicians who would soon be sending young men to Vietnam in escalating numbers. Over the course of the song’s four-and-a-half minutes, Dylan moves from calling out these war hawks to wishing them a swift death, in the hope that their removal from the scene might forestall the calamity ahead.
Despite being one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz – a pioneer of the bebop styling that became popular following World War II – Charlie Parker led a troubled life. Wracked by mental health issues – including multiple suicide attempts – and debilitating addictions to heroin and alcohol, “Bird” would leave behind a complicated legacy when he died in 1955 at the age of thirty-four.
One of Parker’s most affecting recordings, “Lover Man” provides a glimpse into his genius, and his troubles. Recorded as he was experiencing intense withdrawals from heroin – which he treated with excessive drinking – the song is far from the most pristine performance in Parker’s catalog. Legend has it that the track’s producer, Ross Russell, had to physically prop Parker up so that he could play into the microphone. Already an aching song to begin with, “Lover Man” takes on an air of tragedy and pathos in this setting – one that is weaved into the notes of Parker’s solo, and lingers in the space between them.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony”
Appearing toward the end of the Britpop era, the signature track by The Verve serves as something of an exclamation point on a particularly vibrant time for British rock music. Eschewing the “trad” impulses of groups like Oasis, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” mixed its rock elements with an eye toward modernistic production – particularly in its embrace of sampling.
Of course, it was that use of sampling that would land the group in a prolonged legal battle over the song’s considerable royalties. Built upon an orchestral reworking of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” – recorded by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra – “Bitter Sweet Symphony” would ultimately result in a qualified success for The Verve, and songwriter Richard Ashcroft.
Ashcroft would not earn songwriting credit, or royalties, for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” for over twenty years. In 2019, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards formally relinquished their publishing rights to the song, prompting Ashcroft to thank them for “acknowledging me as the writer of a fucking masterpiece.”
“Get Up, Stand Up”
While The Wailers are most frequently associated with Bob Marley, the group was formed by Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer in 1963, and remained a highly democratic unit until Tosh and Wailer departed in 1974. Co-written by Marley and Tosh, “Get Up, Stand Up” is one of the group’s most iconic tracks, becoming a lasting symbol of resistance.
Like most protest anthems, “Get Up, Stand Up” thrives due to the impact and simplicity of its chorus. Though Marley was initially moved to write the song while witnessing rampant poverty in Haiti, its message has become universal in the decades that have followed. It remains a timeless anthem of the downtrodden.
There is no one particular moment where Brian Wilson went from “promising young writer/producer” to “pop music’s greatest genius,” but “California Girls” was an important step in that evolution – especially as it was allegedly composed during Wilson’s first acid trip. Having already examined a more musically and emotionally complex side on The Beach Boys’ 1964 record, Today!, Wilson inched closer to the orchestral grandeur of Pet Sounds with this track.
A cursory listen to “California Girls” doesn’t exactly reveal its complexity, largely because it’s so easy to get caught up in the song’s undeniable melody – and undeniably hokey lyrics. However, closer inspection uncovers the track’s ingenious instrumental and vocal arrangements. Wilson’s vision is particularly stirring in the song’s orchestral introduction – its kaleidoscopic nature perfectly evoking the warm sunshine of the Golden State.
There are almost too many great elements to this highlight from OutKast’s masterful third record, 1998’s Aquemini. Slowing the pace down from the album’s preceding tracks, “SpottieOttieDopalicious” rides a soulful bass groove for over seven minutes of gloriously atmospheric production – all punctuated by the song’s iconic horn riff.
Having firmly established their rap credentials long before, André 3000 and Big Boi take a spoken-word approach on the track – waxing poetically on the crossroads of youth vs. adulthood, love vs. lust, and pleasure vs. responsibility. As is the case with all of the Atlanta group’s best tracks, it’s unique, clever, and undoubtedly catchy.
“(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea”
Londoner Declan MacManus – a.k.a Elvis Costello – released his debut album, My Aim is True, in 1977. Packed to the gills with whip-smart songwriting, the album was a landmark, whose tangential relation to the UK’s burgeoning punk movement made Costello’s voice all the more refreshing. For its follow-up, 1978’s This Year’s Model, Costello would work with a different group of musicians – his new permanent band, The Attractions.
Released as the first single to This Year’s Model, “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea” immediately displays the prowess of Costello’s new group. Kicking off with Pete Thomas’ quick, reggae-inspired beat, “Chelsea” moved Costello’s sound closer to the punk scene, adding a musical ferocity to his sharp lyrical barbs. Bruce Thomas (no relation) provides the bass line that supplies much of the song’s melody, and keyboardist Steve Nieve adds a spacey, detuned keyboard that contributes to the track’s nervous sense of foreboding.
I don’t deny the primacy of “Chameleon” in Herbie Hancock’s catalog; it’s a fine song that was a near-miss for this list. However – perhaps due to my general preference for hard bop over jazz fusion – “Cantaloupe Island” is my favorite track by the revered pianist/composer.
The centerpiece to 1964’s outstanding Empyrean Isles, “Cantaloupe Island” finds Hancock and his small combo – cornetist Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Anthony Williams – riffing on an impossibly catchy piano melody. Their individual performances are impressive, but not cluttered in the way that contemporaneous jazz could be. Ultimately, it’s their group dynamic and musical interplay that make “Cantaloupe Island” such an appealing track.
There are few songs in the history of popular music that are more exuberantly irresistible than the lone hit from The Chords. Self-written by the Bronx group and released as something of an afterthought, “Sh-Boom” is unquestionably one of the finest examples of doo-wop – particularly the upbeat variety.
“Sh-Boom” exudes joy in every corner of its brisk two-and-a-half minutes. The group’s harmonies are spot-on, particularly in the track’s final verse and chorus – isn’t it all chorus? – which finds lead vocalist Carl Feaster breathlessly beaming. Before getting there though, it’s the uncredited saxophone solo – with its stutter-start – that truly kicks the song into a higher gear.
“Beds Are Burning”
The biggest hit by the Sydney-based group Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning” was something of an anomaly as it raced up pop charts across the globe. Written as a critique of Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal population, “Beds Are Burning” was a rare politically-charged pop hit in the largely self-absorbed eighties.
An impassioned plea for reparations for decades of mistreatment, “Beds Are Burning” boasts one of the most anthemic choruses of its time. While the song’s true meaning may have been lost among much of the international audience that embraced it, the track’s profile – and vocalist Peter Garrett’s sincerity – ultimately brought increased attention within Australia to an important set of issues.
“I Love How You Love Me”
One of the earliest hit singles produced by Phil Spector, “I Love How You Love Me” is an early example of what, decades later, would be dubbed “dream pop.” Carried by Spector’s gently lilting arrangement, the song’s delicately ethereal manner makes it a particularly evocative entry in the girl group canon.
Spector would ultimately perfect the formula for “teen music,” and the mix of drama, passion, and mystique that he reached with “I Love How You Love Me” shows the surprisingly soft touch of a domineering, intimidating genius. Like most of Spector’s greatest work, the track was heavily labored over, but the end result is stunning in its direct nature and simple beauty.
The centerpiece of St. Vincent’s self-titled fourth album, “Prince Johnny” is one of Annie Clark’s most evocative pieces of songwriting – made all the more impactful by the track’s sparse arrangement. While much of St. Vincent found Clark trading in postmodernist abstraction, the lyrical directness of this song shows her deft touch for personal writing.
Clark’s harmonized vocals soar above a skeletal backdrop of drums and Mellotron choir, as she sketches out small snapshots of her complicated relationship with the song’s titular character. Though “Prince Johnny” ultimately reveals little in the way of concrete details, it manages to be heartbreaking all the same.
“In the Neighborhood”
It’s often argued that 1983’s Swordfishtrombones is where Tom Waits went off the deep end, into the macabre stylings that would define his greatest works. However, while it was here that Waits dramatically indulged the seedier leanings of his earlier career, Swordfishtrombones represented more of an expansion – or deepening – of his art, rather than a wholesale abandonment of his past.
There are several tracks on Swordfishtrombones that illustrate the continuation of Waits’ sentimental side – the empathy of “Soldier’s Things” and romanticism of “Johnsburg, Illinois” come to mind – but it’s “In the Neighborhood” that arguably stands as the album’s emotional peak. Waits’ portrait of said neighborhood only seems to focus on elements of annoyance, but the track’s warm horn and percussion arrangement sounds like nothing less than a celebration of home, flaws and all.
The theme to the greatest blaxploitation soundtrack – and one of the finest soul albums of all-time – “Freddie’s Dead” is a highlight among many on Superfly. Curtis Mayfield had already stunned in his work with The Impressions, and his masterful solo debut, but working with the inspiration of Gordon Parks, Jr.’s film allowed Mayfield’s music to take on a more cinematic element.
“Freddie’s Dead” is one of the tracks most strongly tied to the film’s narrative, but its bass hook, propulsive rhythm, and soaring strings make it plenty appealing, even for those with no knowledge of the movie. Mayfield’s falsetto vocals are as pristine as usual and resonant as ever. So too are the lyrics, which explore the complex causes and devastating consequences of the drug business.
“This Ain’t No Picnic”
Buried deep on side three of their 1984 masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime, Minutemen put their most pop-inclined foot forward on “This Ain’t No Picnic.” For a band that famously opted to keep even their most anthemic songs as compact as possible, “Picnic” is something of an anomaly in their catalog – sporting not just a verse and a chorus, but TWO of each, plus a typically ripping guitar solo from D. Boon.
In another rare occurrence for the San Pedro, California group, “This Ain’t No Picnic” became the first Minutemen song for which a music video was made. The clip features the band performing the track while attempting to evade a bombing from a plane piloted by none other than a young Ronald Reagan.
“Please Mr. Postman”
One of the earliest hits from Motown/Tamla, this debut single for The Marvelettes was the Detroit label’s first release to hit the top of the charts. Though “Please Mr. Postman” doesn’t exactly fit the mold of Motown’s eventual signature sound, it’s a fine track that ranks among the best girl group cuts of the sixties.
Carried by the excellent lead vocals of Gladys Horton, “Please Mr. Postman” is surprisingly nuanced for an early-sixties pop hit. Capturing both the joy of young love, and the anxieties of separation, the track transcends the easy teen fare of its contemporaries. That subtlety may be what drove The Beatles to record it for their second album, 1963’s With The Beatles. While that version ranks as one of the band’s best early covers – featuring a particularly pleading vocal from John Lennon – the original single reigns supreme.