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.
“My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)”
Appearing in two radically different forms on Neil Young’s 1979 live album of new material, Rust Never Sleeps, “My My, Hey Hey” is one of his most iconic compositions. While the heavier version – titled “Hey Hey, My My” – has its merits, it’s the stark solo acoustic version that opens the record which carries the most weight.
A commentary on the connection between rock & roll and untimely death, “My My, Hey Hey” alludes to the lives and careers of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten – nodding to the cyclical nature of pop culture, and the continual envelope-pushing that defines rock celebrity. The track gained an even deeper poignancy and prescience in 1994, when its most famous line – “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” – was quoted in the suicide note of Kurt Cobain.
One of the central bands in New York’s early-2000s indie scene, Interpol scored one of the decade’s most buzzed-about debut records with 2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights. Released as the album’s second single, “Obstacle 1” was the highlight of a critically acclaimed record that reinvigorated post-punk for a new generation.
Contemporary reviews of Turn on the Bright Lights struggled to avoid making comparisons to Joy Division, and while such associations could have doomed a lesser group, Interpol’s strongest tracks thrived on a palpable sense of tension. “Obstacle 1” mixes its cold, dark atmosphere with a compelling melody and keen sense of dynamics. While one may be tempted to call it clinical, there’s a pulsing vibrancy to the track that is undeniable.
“The Mercy Seat”
Oh, you want it darker, do you? Perhaps the quintessential track from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “The Mercy Seat” seethes with intensity from its opening seconds, and never lets up over the course of its run-time. Mixing biblical imagery with the tale of a man being sent to the electric chair, “The Mercy Seat” has verses – fascinating ones, in fact – but it’s the insistent nature of the song’s chorus that makes it such a terrifyingly consuming track.
Through fifteen repetitions of the chorus, Cave steps deeper and deeper into the first-person narrative of the condemned man – his band’s chaotic backing becoming more frantic with each pass. By song’s end, it’s hard to know what to make of his final words. They’re terrifying if you believe them to be a confession, and even more if you don’t.
Sam Cooke had an impossibly charming voice that could elevate even the most pedestrian song to something approaching transcendence. Fortunately, during the tragically brief peak of his career, Cooke made little time for pedestrian material. One of his greatest singles, “Wonderful World” stands alongside the great pop songs of the early 1960s.
Set to a brisk tempo, “Wonderful World” is a classic example of a song that leaves you wishing for another verse and chorus. Cooke is unsurprisingly the track’s focal point, but the song’s gently drifting arrangement, and the backing harmonies – believed to be those of the gospel group Pilgrim Travelers – provide a perfect accompaniment to his peerless vocals.
“I Want to Be Well”
Sufjan Stevens had dabbled in electronic music with his 2001 instrumental album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, but 2010’s The Age of Adz found him returning to electronics on a set of songs that expanded upon the introspective songwriting of his mid-2000s breakthrough work. Stevens used dense, glitchy soundscapes to invoke the album’s themes of anxiety, depression, and spiritual crisis – nowhere more effectively than on its penultimate track.
“I Want to Be Well” was a far cry from the pristine chamber pop of 2005’s beloved Illinois, but underneath its chaotic exterior was perhaps Stevens’ most personally revealing song to date. Amid violent imagery and descriptors of crushing panic, he turns to tirade – insisting over and over that he’s “not fucking around” about whatever mental or physical harm he is facing. Stevens would reveal more specifics on his next album – 2015’s Carrie and Lowell – but this remains his most intense moment on record.
As the lead single to one of the most highly anticipated albums of the nineties, the video premiere of “Heart-Shaped Box” was something of a cultural event within my circle of friends. For months, rumors had been circulating about Nirvana’s turn toward a darker, more abrasive sound for their third LP, In Utero, and the jaggedly raw track certainly confirmed those suspicions.
While “Heart-Shaped Box” saw Nirvana taking something of a course correction from the slickly produced Nevermind, Kurt Cobain’s knack for perfectly barbed hooks remained firmly intact. The grotesque symbolism of the song’s video alluded to the dark imagery of In Utero‘s lyrics – providing a tantalizing preview of a gripping album.
“Boys Don’t Cry”
Not yet settled into the oppressively dark stylings of the trilogy of albums that would make them goth icons, The Cure unleashed a classic slice of jangle pop as the A-side to their third single. While the track was hardly a commercial smash, “Boys Don’t Cry” would become one of the most iconic songs in the band’s catalog.
Though Robert Smith’s lyrics are undoubtedly melancholic, “Boys Don’t Cry” is effervescently jaunty. For a band that would soon become synonymous with funereal atmospheres, the pop instincts that would suit The Cure extremely well during the latter half of the eighties – and well beyond – are fully formed here.
“Can’t Help Falling in Love”
Thin is the line between a well-rendered love song and schlocky sentimentality, and Elvis Presley threads that line beautifully on his greatest ballad. Originally recorded for the soundtrack to the 1961 film Blue Hawaii, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is arguably the perfect realization of his vocal abilities.
A light-as-air arrangement and gorgeous melody – courtesy of an 18th century French love song – aid in making “Can’t Help Falling in Love” such a memorable cornerstone in Elvis’ catalog. Not only one of his finest recordings, it was also the last song that Presley sang in front of a live audience before his 1977 death.
One of the best compositions by Elton John and his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, “Tiny Dancer” would take several years to achieve its iconic status. Originally featured as the lead-off song to 1971’s Madman Across the Water, “Tiny Dancer” has since become a fixture of television and film soundtracks, and stands as one of Elton John’s most beloved songs.
Tastefully orchestrated and impeccably recorded, “Tiny Dancer” soars on the strength of is magisterial chorus – so much in fact, that even the song’s excellent verses come off as a mere prelude. In time, Elton John would become one of the defining singer-songwriters of the seventies, and this track sits at the core of his legacy.
While they would make their name on compact, bass-less punk, Sleater-Kinney went big on the final record before their decade-long hiatus. Everything about the trio’s Dave Fridmann-produced 2005 album, The Woods, sounds huge, and this goes double for its stellar lead single, “Entertain.”
Announced by Janet Weiss’ cavernous drums – mastered at a limit-pushing level – “Entertain” begins menacingly, and only grows more so at every turn. Carrie Brownstein delivers a scathingly forceful lyric in the verses, while Corin Tucker provides the hook that gives the band its most anthemic chorus to date.
“Bankrupt on Selling”
With all the attention commanded by their substantial musical attack, it’s easy to overlook just how strong the songwriting is on Modest Mouse’s landmark 1997 record, The Lonesome Crowded West. Tucked away toward the album’s end, the gentle folk strains of “Bankrupt on Selling” place the emphasis squarely on Isaac Brock’s reflective lyrics.
There is a wisdom to Brock’s songwriting that belies his age – barely into his twenties when The Lonesome Crowded West was recorded. Tinged with regret and animosity, “Bankrupt on Selling” reveals a surprisingly vulnerable side – one emphasized by Brock’s shaky vocal delivery and the song’s spartan arrangement. There are more immediate tracks to be found among their early work, but few that linger quite like this one.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 would inspire a host of impactful songs – particularly a handful of contemporary tracks that will feature later in this list – and it serves as the backdrop for Randy Newman’s greatest composition. Sitting at the center of 1974’s often satirical – and frequently-misunderstood – album Good Old Boys, “Louisiana 1927” has, frustratingly, proven to be continually relevant.
With impressive economy – and trusting his listeners to read between the lines – “Louisiana 1927” details the destruction that left hundreds of thousands of poor Black and white southerners homeless, while criticizing the ambivalent, indifferent response of the Coolidge administration. Decades later – and nearly eighty years after the events that had inspired it – the song would return to the public consciousness, reflecting the ineffectiveness of the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Newman would perform “Louisiana” at several high-profile events in the wake of Katrina, serving as a tribute to multiple generations of Americans left stranded by their own government.
There are few album introductions that are more inviting than Van Morrison’s opening line of his 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks – “If I ventured into the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream…” Then again, there are even fewer albums that live up to such a vivid invitation. The point of departure for a forty-six-minute voyage into the mystic, “Astral Weeks” promises transcendence, and delivers.
A departure from Morrison’s pop-oriented earlier solo work – and his time in the garage upstarts, Them – “Astral Weeks” is loosely structured and highly improvisational. Set to a pillowy backdrop of acoustic instruments, Morrison’s lyrics take on a stream-of-consciousness feel – as jazzy and poetic as the song’s gorgeous musical accompaniment.
The Idaho-born folk singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has forged a career of solid albums, peaking with a trio of releases in the mid-2000s. Introspective, melodically gifted, and refreshingly earnest, Ritter has never quite broken through to a wide audience, but he has earned a loyal following. With this track from 2010’s So Runs the World Away, the often-overlooked songwriter delivered one for the ages.
“The Curse” is enchanting in its minimal, waltz time arrangement. Ritter wisely avoids the temptation to fashion a chorus for the track, instead spending the song’s eleven verses weaving a wistful tale of ill-fated love. Rarely will I insist that a song’s music video is critical in maximizing its appeal, but seriously, if you’ve never seen it, take a few minutes to watch the clip below before you continue reading.
“Me Myself and I”
De La Soul’s 1989 debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, promised a brightly-colored future for a genre that was just beginning to realize its commercial potential. Smart, optimistic, and bursting at the seams with creativity – particularly in its deft use of sampling – 3 Feet High is a landmark that stands with the finest hip-hop albums of all-time.
One of the album’s many highlights, “Me Myself and I” finds De La Soul at their most charming. Rap music was at something of a crossroads at the time – pulled between the seemingly-contradictory impulses of realism and commercial appeal – but De La Soul found that their version of realism resulted in a playful sound that represented the trio’s uniquely upbeat charisma.
“Me Myself and I” was a hit – as was its parent album – and De La Soul would ultimately become one of the most influential hip-hop groups of their time. Frustratingly, due to legal issues, their albums are currently unavailable on Spotify. Therefore, I’ve substituted a track by one of their many followers as a placeholder in the playlist.
At times, Supergrass’ 1995 debut album, I Should Coco, sounds like nothing less than an exuberant celebration of being young. Perhaps it’s a feeling that’s unique to me; I acquired it at eighteen, while teetering on the edge of adulthood. Or, perhaps it’s more universal – a result of carryover from the record’s best-known track, the gloriously giddy “Alright.”
At the dawn of their career, Supergrass inhabited a sweet spot between the melodies of sixties pop and the attitude of punk. Scrappy underdogs of the Britpop scene, the Oxford group seemed disinterested in the posturing of contemporaries like Oasis and Blur, and instead, blew through every song as if the electricity in the studio was about to be permanently shut off. “Alright” is Supergrass at their peak.
Gang of Four’s 1979 debut album, Entertainment!, is a central document in the post-punk styling that emerged in the wake of punk’s ascension. Literate, political, and surprisingly danceable, Entertainment! dramatically expanded the possibilities of punk in its own time, and would be a critical influence on the dance punk sound of the 2000s.
The album’s centerpiece, “Damaged Goods” was initially released as a single – the band’s first – in 1978. Re-recorded for Entertainment! in a sharper, slightly faster tempo, the song became a powerhouse. Andy Gill’s guitar – which led critics to start using the word “angular” a lot more – would influence everyone from The Edge to Carrie Brownstein, and John King’s lyrical examination of sexual politics would prove equally resonant in the years to come.
“Ain’t No Sunshine”
Though “Lean on Me” may be his best-known song, “Ain’t No Sunshine” is the most affecting track written by the recently departed Bill Withers. Looking at the song’s run-time and lyric sheet, one might be forgiven for not expecting a major statement, but Withers wrestles a remarkable amount of emotion from the track’s seemingly slight stature.
The studio recording of “Ain’t No Sunshine” appeared on Withers’ 1971 debut album, Just as I Am. It’s a certified soul classic – elegantly orchestrated and sang – but I’m opting for a video of a live performance here. It’s nothing short of arresting, and a testament to the power of combining the right singer with the perfect song.
“Back on the Chain Gang”
Written and recorded during a period of intense turmoil, “Back on the Chain Gang” is Chrissie Hynde’s greatest composition – one with a heavy backstory. Recorded just a month after the drug-involved death of The Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, and the dismissal of bassist Pete Farndon – who would himself die of a drug overdose just months later – “Back on the Chain Gang” would ultimately become a song of perseverance for its author.
Capturing a band in the midst of a career-redefining transition, “Back on the Chain Gang” only features Hynde, drummer Martin Chambers, and a quickly assembled group of stand-ins. Any sense of unfamiliarity is smoothed over by the strength of Hynde’s soaring vocal melody, and the sterling guitar work of Billy Bremner – formerly of Rockpile. Throw in a rhythmic backing that nods to Sam Cooke’s 1960 classic, “Chain Gang,” and you have one of the great singles of the eighties.
Well, it took a while, but rest assured, David Bowie will make up for lost time in the installments to come. Bowie’s first appearance on this list comes in the form of the quasi-title track to his 1972 masterwork, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – the album that set him on the path to superstardom.
Announced by Mick Ronson’s iconic guitar riff, “Ziggy” finds Bowie tracing the story of the titular character – a character he would ultimately become on the supporting tour for Ziggy Stardust and its follow-up, 1973’s Aladdin Sane. While closely tied to the album’s concept, “Ziggy” proved capable of standing on its own. Even though it was never released as a single, the song would soon become a staple of the newly emerging “album-oriented rock” radio format.