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.
“Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”
“The Angry Man of Jazz” makes his first appearance on this list with the ferocious opener to 1960’s classic, Blues & Roots. Recorded as a rebuke to critics who questioned Charles Mingus’ ability to swing, Blues & Roots finds him in a slightly more traditional mode, but still retaining the wild energy of the work that made him one of the leading figures of hard bop.
Despite any attempts to appeal to traditionalists, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” is textbook Mingus. The horns explode out of the speakers, Dannie Richmond’s steady beat simmers into a boil, and Mingus ping-pongs up and down the neck of the bass as only he could. Few artists of jazz’s golden era were as consistently rewarding as Mingus, and this is one of his finest moments.
For their second album, Real Estate ditched the hazy atmosphere that hovered over their intriguing 2009 self-titled debut, opting instead for a clean sound that emphasized the glimmering guitar work of Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile. Days captured a wistful mood – somewhere between summery and autumnal – and nowhere more effectively than on “It’s Real.”
The most briskly paced track on Days, “It’s Real” separates itself from the largely-languid tempos of the surrounding songs. Set to a surfy backbeat, the song takes off in its chorus, as Courtney’s soaring vocal leaves plenty of melodic space for the intertwined guitar parts. It’s the enchanting highlight of an immensely enjoyable record.
Composed of thousands of wildly-eclectic samples, The Avalanches’ debut album, 2000’s Since I Left You, is a landmark in electronic music. The Australian collective earned critical acclaim for their equally inventive and accessible sound, and perhaps no track better symbolizes their off-kilter charm than “Frontier Psychiatrist.”
Bizarre, haunting, and catchy – with a nightmare-inducing video to match – “Frontier Psychiatrist” is a track that is difficult to categorize. It’s undoubtedly a piece of experimental music, but between its melodic hooks and quotable interjections is a highly-functioning pop song – one unlike anything heard before.
The tune of this highlight from John Lennon’s 1971 solo album, Imagine, first appeared during sessions for the “White Album,” under the title “Child of Nature.” While Lennon’s acoustic demo lacks the orchestral grandeur of the finished product, the beauty of the melody that would eventually become “Jealous Guy” is undeniable.
Dropping the India-based inspirations of “Child of Nature,” Lennon repurposed “Jealous Guy” as one of his most introspective, heartfelt tracks. The raw emotion that he had shown on 1970’s Plastic Ono Band would be pulled into opposing directions on Imagine, and the vulnerability displayed here makes for one of Lennon’s most compelling and revealing songs.
“History Lesson – Part II”
Dennes “D.” Boon and Mike Watt met as kids in San Pedro, California. Bonding over a love of music, history, and politics, the two became fast friends. Though the intensity of their personalities and passions led to a certain volatility in their relationship, their similarities ultimately pulled the two closer together – particularly after Boon’s mother died when he was eighteen. As teenagers, Boon and Watt discovered punk rock in the clubs of Hollywood, finding the DIY nature of the genre to be perfectly complementary to their musical skills and leftist political leanings.
Written by Watt, “History Lesson – Part II” is a marked change of pace from Minutemen’s usual fare. Boon reads Watt’s retelling of the band’s story over a sweetly low-key backing – explaining how punk gave the pair an identity and a voice. As a centerpiece to their astoundingly great 1984 record, Double Nickels on the Dime, the song is a welcome reprieve. Upon D. Boon’s death the following year, it would become a testament to brotherhood.
Dismissed as pop lightweights – even after having proved themselves capable of writing and performing their own music – The Monkees set out to change their image with the 1968 film, Head. A critical and commercial disaster, the film signaled the beginning of the end for the group, though its soundtrack was highlighted by their last great song.
Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, “Porpoise Song” is – like the film that it appeared in – deliberately trippy. However, where Head suffered due to its darkly inscrutable nature, “Porpoise Song” benefits from its embrace of atmospheric psychedelia – similar tricks, but arguably easier to pull off effectively in music than in film.
Unlike many of his blues contemporaries who began recording in the 1920s, Lonnie Johnson had a long and durable career. Not only did Johnson actively release new music in five different decades, but his signature recording did not arrive until well over twenty years into his career. That track – the oft-recorded “Tomorrow Night” – remains a timeless classic.
Written in 1939 by Sam Coslow and Will Grosz, “Tomorrow Night” was first recorded as a big band number during the height of the swing era. Johnson’s understated version of the song emphasized its longing, melancholy nature. It would prove to be the biggest hit of Johnson’s career, ultimately becoming known as his theme song.
“Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”
The centerpiece of 2012’s critical and commercial breakthrough, Lonerism, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is the best realization of Tame Impala’s neo-psychedelic sound to date. With lyrics to match the disorienting nature of Kevin Parker’s dense production, the song’s chorus is mantra-like in its repetition – a perfect match for the hypnotic music.
The lazy line of criticism regarding Lonerism was that Tame Impala were merely recycling ideas from the sixties. While Parker – the sole presence on the album – was undoubtedly influenced by the likes of The Beatles and Phil Spector, there is a modernity to the sound of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” that makes it equal parts familiar and refreshing.
“Street Fighting Man”
Released during the tense summer of 1968, “Street Fighting Man” found The Rolling Stones at their most topical – commenting on the political and social upheaval that was on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. Its arrival in the U.S. would coincide with the riots that broke out in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, prompting the song to be banned on American radio – thus increasing its notoriety.
Opening with Keith Richards’ dryly strummed acoustic guitar, “Street Fighting Man” serves as a bridge between the band’s psychedelic work of the mid-sixties – note Brian Jones’ sitar and tamboura – and the return-to-roots sound of the song’s eventual parent album, Beggars Banquet. It was an anthemic call to arms that stands as one of the Stones’ most iconic recordings.
“Life During Wartime”
The lead single to Talking Heads’ brilliant, game-changing 1979 album, Fear of Music, “Life During Wartime” finds David Byrne’s signature nerviness running amok in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. It’s difficult to tell if his stream-of-consciousness musings make him a reliable or unreliable witness to the unfolding scene, but Byrne lays out a compelling account, nonetheless.
Musically, “Life During Wartime” represented a fascinating step forward for Talking Heads. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz had become new wave’s most versatile rhythm section, and Brian Eno’s production encouraged Jerry Harrison to deepen his synth-based soundscapes. In a live setting, the song would become an unstoppable force – nowhere more so than in the unforgettable performance from the band’s dazzling concert film, Stop Making Sense.
“Letter From an Occupant”
The New Pornographers essentially began life as a side project for a group of veterans of Vancouver, B.C.’s vibrant indie rock scene. Led by singer-songwriter Carl Newman, the collective also included Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and Neko Case – who would subsequently become a star in her own solo career – giving the project the feel of a supergroup.
It’s the combination of Newman’s power-pop instincts and Case’s incomparable vocals that make “Letter From an Occupant” one of the most joyous singles of its time. There are no shortage of glorious hooks to be found throughout the song, but it’s Case’s dazzling recitation of the title phrase that makes the biggest impact. She, Newman, and Bejar have continued to forge accomplished careers, but – either individually or collectively – they have never again matched the greatness of this spellbinding track.
The first time that I heard Slanted and Enchanted, I found a simple pattern emerging in the tracks that I responded to positively. I liked all of the even numbered ones, and – aside from the album’s classic opener – was left somewhat cold by the more raw, odd-numbered ones. Having enjoyed track eight – “Loretta’s Scars” – my expectations for the ninth song, “Here,” were set low.
“Here” finds Stephen Malkmus at his most resigned and forlorn, but also at his most poetic. It’s a track of desolate imagery, matching the minimal arrangement and spartan production that would make Slanted and Enchanted a lo-fi landmark. In time, I would learn to love every second of the album, but I’ll always hold a special fondness for the song that kept me coming back to it.
I’m certain that mine is not the only family with a multi-generational connection to this most heartfelt of Bob Dylan songs, but nevertheless, “Forever Young” will always be a personal sentimental favorite. While Dylan could be caustic and cynical, there is a sincerity to this track that makes it a unique moment in a widely varied discography.
“Forever Young” appeared back-to-back – in dramatically different versions – on 1974’s Planet Waves. However, it’s Dylan’s solo acoustic demo – found on the 1985 Biograph compilation – that is the most direct, intimate, and affecting recording of the song. I have included that version in the Spotify playlist.
The Turtles’ signature song was a standout single and chart-topper in a year with no shortage of formidable competition. Carried by its martial beat, minor-key melody, triumphant chorus, and fantastic group harmonies, “Happy Together” is undoubtedly one of the most memorable tracks from its era.
Nostalgia for the sixties is complicated, and uniquely so for those of us who have no personal memories to attach to the decade. These past few years have taught us a few lessons – or so I hope – and one that I find to be particularly applicable in relation to discussions of pop culture is that it can be dangerous to romanticize times of turbulence and/or perverse inequity. With that disclaimer, it’s hard for me to hear this song and not – in some small way – envy at least some elements of a time in which a track so simultaneously melodic and melancholy could be an inescapable hit.
“How Much a Dollar Cost”
Of course, our own turbulent times have proven capable of inspiring great art as well. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a modern masterpiece – one born of the same urgency that defined the contemporaneous emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement – that stands among the finest hip-hop albums of all-time.
Among the album’s many highlights, “How Much a Dollar Cost” is built upon a piano phrase that is vaguely reminiscent of John Coltrane’s “Ole” – by way of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.” Its ominous nature serves as a fitting backdrop to Lamar’s dense lyrics, which reference a lack of both financial and spiritual fulfillment. Less direct than the album’s other standout tracks, its complex, poetic nature reveals another fascinating layer of a great artist at the peak of his powers.
Originally recorded in 1969 by Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett – who co-wrote the track with Leon Russell – “Superstar” would become one of the most iconic singles of the seventies in the hands of the Carpenters. Their 1971 version heightened the melodramatic nature of the song with a mournfully baroque arrangement, and Karen Carpenter’s plaintive vocals.
I was drawn to “Superstar” as a teenager, after hearing Sonic Youth’s icy 1995 version of the song. Recorded as a tribute to Karen Carpenter – not the band’s first nod to the tragic pop star – their take has an elegiac nature that only heightens the drama of the more famous version. However, it’s the haunting undertones of the Carpenters’ recording that make it the most memorable.
“Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”
Announced by Jimi Hendrix’s monster riff, “Voodoo Chile” is massive enough to match the braggadocio of the song’s lyrics. While Hendrix’s pop skills are often underrated, this highlight from 1968’s Electric Ladyland primarily serves as a vehicle for his incomparable guitar playing, and the impressive rhythmic interplay of Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding.
The third and final album that the trio recorded together, Electric Ladyland represented Hendrix’s furthest sonic explorations to date. While his playing was mind-bending on its own, “Voodoo Chile”‘s hallucinogenic impact is deepened by Hendrix’s innovative studio trickery. It’s a powerful track from one of the era’s true trailblazers.
Stevie Wonder began releasing iconic singles at the age of fifteen, but he didn’t truly hit his stride as an album artist until the early seventies. From 1972’s Music of My Mind to 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder unleashed five classic albums that would cement his status as one of the giants of American pop music. Arguably the finest of these records was 1973’s Innervisions – an album that blended soul and funk into a package that was as accessible as it was innovative.
One of the finest tracks on Innervisions, “Higher Ground” is built on Wonder’s iconic clavinet riff. He also provides the rest of the song’s instrumentation – writing and recording the entire thing within just a few hours. What took Stevie Wonder an afternoon in the spring of 1973 would ultimately become an immortal track that stands at the center of his legacy.
“The Mess Inside”
Another notably fast worker, John Darnielle crafted a catalog of remarkable emotional depth and variety during nights and weekends away from his job as a psychiatric nurse technician. Quickly captured by his trusty Panasonic tape recorder, Darnielle would slowly grow a cult following as a lo-fi icon, before his project, the Mountain Goats, broke through to a wider audience in the 2000s.
Darnielle’s last lo-fi album – at least until 2020’s Songs for Pierre Chuvin – is his masterpiece. Featuring fourteen deeply affecting tracks, 2002’s All Hail West Texas is one of the finest lyrical albums of the last quarter-century. Its gut-wrenching centerpiece, “The Mess Inside” focuses on a common Darnielle-ian theme, deteriorating love. The lyrics are of his typically outstanding caliber, but it’s his stirring performance that cuts straight through the tape fuzz to pierce the heart.
“Quem tem medo de brincar de amor”
Maybe it’s because the first song that I ever heard by them was “Bat Macumba,” or perhaps it’s because Arnaldo Baptista hovers over his bandmates – brother Sérgio Dias and future-wife Rita Lee – like a vampire on the cover of their 1968 self-titled debut album, but I’ve always associated Os Mutantes with the phrase “batshit crazy.” Nowhere in the São Paulo band’s catalog is the descriptor more applicable than on this track from their 1970 record, A divina comédia ou ando meio desligado.
“Quem tem medo de brincar de amor” begins wildly, and only escalates from there. By 1970, the Tropicália scene that Os Mutantes had been a critical part of seemed like a distant memory – in no small part because of the Brazilian government’s arrest and deportation of the scene’s two central figures, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. Os Mutantes aim to keep the spirit of ’68 alive on this track, mixing eclectic instrumentation, disorienting time shifts, and bizarre sound effects into a swirling melange of psychedelia.
The Tropicalistas caught the attention of the authorities, not necessarily because of any specific messaging in their music, but because of the inherent political statement that comes from free artistic expression under an authoritarian dictatorship. They would produce a wealth of beautifully kaleidoscopic music over a short period of time, but few pieces as boldly expressive as this one.