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.
“Stuck Between Stations”
For their third album – 2006’s Boys and Girls in America – The Hold Steady augmented Craig Finn’s narrative-driven songwriting with the band’s strongest choruses to date. With these sing-along moments incorporated into their sound, Boys and Girls brought an almost celebratory element to Finn’s barstool musings.
Album opener “Stuck Between Stations” follows its brief build with a continuous roar – one reminiscent of a mid-seventies’ era E Street Band. In fact, Bruce Springsteen’s tales of hardscrabble American life loom large over Finn’s lyrics as well in the song’s romanticized retelling of poet John Berryman’s suicide. Berryman – who Finn describes as “drunk and exhausted but critically acclaimed and respected” – died after jumping from a bridge into the Mississippi River, in Finn’s hometown of Minneapolis.
While they consistently remained one of the most successful hip-hop groups in America during their thirty-plus year career, the signature moment from Beastie Boys found them reaching back to their roots as a punk band. With its instantly iconic Spike Jonze-directed music video, “Sabotage” would become the Brooklyn trio’s most memorable hit.
Whereas the Beasties had risen to fame with sample-based productions, the group returned to the rock instrumentation of their youth with 1992’s Check Your Head – a theme that continued with its 1994 follow-up, Ill Communication. “Sabotage” was a blazing rock track, defined by a heavily distorted bass riff played by Adam Yauch (aka MCA). Rather than trading their signature barbs back and forth, “Sabotage” featured a manic vocal performance from Ad-Rock. These elements would help to pique the nascent hip-hop curiosity of more than a few rock kids.
“Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”
Aside from a certain Liverpool quartet, so far Sufjan Stevens has had more songs on this list than any other group or artist. While the frequency of Stevens’ appearances will taper off in the second half, his showing thus far offers supporting evidence for my position that Sufjan is among the finest songwriters of his time. Having shown enormous promise with his earlier recordings, it was on 2005’s Illinois that Stevens truly began to build his case.
Released a few months prior as a preview of Illinois, the album’s quasi title track offered a tantalizing glimpse into the lush arrangements and historical references that Stevens would employ throughout the record. Building upon the most expansive moments of 2003’s largely intimate Michigan, “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” blends strings, brass, hand percussion, and an army of trilling recorders into Stevens’ densest production to date. It’s all in the service of a beautifully crafted two-part epic that melds Sufjan’s geo-historical influences with his innate ability to craft a moving narrative.
Though many of the finest moments of John Coltrane’s all-too-brief career as a bandleader (Ascension, A Love Supreme) will fall victim to my somewhat-convoluted rule about suite-like material, Trane also had enough pop acumen to land some spots on this list. While significant in length, the title track from Coltrane’s only dalliance with the venerable Blue Note label is one of the most effortlessly enjoyable tracks in his catalog.
“Blue Train” found Coltrane pulling along a pair of his bandmates from Miles Davis’ first great quintet (Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones), and adding an influx of talent with Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), and Kenny Drew (piano). The horns provide the song’s indelible hook, and the expansive run time and relaxed atmosphere leave plenty of space for each member of the ensemble to shine.
“All I Want”
From “Blue Train” to Blue: the 1971 album that looms largest in the legacy of Joni Mitchell. One of the finest examples of the introspective 1970s singer-songwriter albums, Blue is a consistently affecting masterwork that reads like nothing short of a greatest hits collection. Setting the album’s bittersweet tone, “All I Want” stands as one of its best tracks.
A song of longing, with the melancholic undercurrent that defines much of Blue, “All I Want” finds Joni Mitchell in typically fine form. Her unmistakeable voice leaps and careens through a complex melody, but never comes off as showy. Mitchell’s lyrics are direct – disarmingly so at times – foregoing impressionistic poetry to maximize emotional impact.
Though it proved somewhat divisive upon arrival, Pixies’ 1990 album Bossanova has deservedly grown in stature in the three decades since its release. Arguably the darkest album of the band’s initial run, Bossanova found Pixies pairing a metallic sheen with the reverb-heavy, surf rock influences that had only lurked around the perimeter of their earlier releases.
Lead single “Velouria” was one of Bossanova‘s most immediate tracks. A mid-tempo number as melodic as anything in the band’s oeuvre, the song is a prime example of Black Francis’ cryptic lyricism. On the surface, “Velouria” sounds like a love song, but its references to lemur skin and Mount Shasta – a recurring theme for Francis – only confuse the matter. Don’t expect to find any clues in the song’s on-a-budget one-shot video – a clip that only adds to the track’s mystique.
“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
Having tipped off a fondness for reggae with their 1977 cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (#910), The Clash crafted a punk/reggae hybrid of their own with “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.” One of the first tracks to demonstrate the musical versatility that would reach a peak on 1979’s stunning double-LP, London Calling, “Hammersmith” represented a turning point for the group.
Released as a single in the summer of 1978, “Hammersmith” finds Joe Strummer resentful of the commercial interests that had permeated the British music scene. Seeing punk and reggae reduced to a commodity, Strummer lashes out at those “turning rebellion into money.” It’s a stirring call to arms for British youth – Black and white – to reclaim what they had created.
They may have never lived up to their own bluster – or their well-documented preoccupation with The Beatles – but Oasis crafted a song for the ages with “Live Forever.” A perfect encapsulation of peak-era Britpop, the track was the third single – and highlight – of the band’s 1994 debut album, Definitely Maybe.
Simple, repetitive, and utterly devoid of subtlety, “Live Forever” may have been calculated to become an anthem, but it succeeds wholly. The verses – hooky enough to be an effective chorus in their own right – build perfectly into what seems to merely be a pre-chorus, until the falsetto hook (“you and I are gonna live forever”) closes the deal. Surprisingly, the song was not a massive hit upon its initial release, but as Oasis gained notoriety over the next few years, “Live Forever” rightfully became their most endearing – if not their most meme-worthy – single.
“Across the Universe”
Recorded and released in two different versions – first for the World Wildlife Fund’s No One’s Gonna Change Our World compilation, and again for 1970’s Let It Be – “Across the Universe” is one of John Lennon’s most poetic contributions to The Beatles’ catalog. Inspired by the band’s interest in Transcendental Meditation, the song was a peaceful contradiction to their imminent messy breakup.
While the doctored-up Phil Spector version from Let It Be is not without considerable merit, it’s the sparse original take that best preserves Lennon’s meditative vision. All four Beatles provide minimalist instrumental contributions – and are joined on backing vocals by two of the “Apple Scruffs” fans congregated outside of the Abbey Road studio – on a radiant track that evokes the “million suns” of Lennon’s lyrics.
There was little precedent for Wu-Tang Clan when the nine-member ensemble made their debut with 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Anchored by the intriguingly grimy production work of RZA, the album would inspire the rise of countless DIY hip-hop acts, while reinvigorating the East Coast rap scene.
It’s hard to pick a single track that best defines Wu-Tang Clan – though a case could be made for “Protect Ya Neck,” which features most of the group’s members – but “C.R.E.A.M.” is arguably the most appealing contender on 36 Chambers. Its title an acronym for the song’s hook (“cash rules everything around me”), “C.R.E.A.M.” features verses from Raekwon and Inspectah Deck that avoid the braggadocio that had taken over mainstream hip-hop, in favor of a gritty portrayal of the New York scene from which the group emerged.
“I Fought the Law”
Written by Sonny Curtis – who joined The Crickets after Buddy Holly’s death in 1959 – “I Fought the Law” would become a hit in the hands of The Bobby Fuller Four. Fuller, a fellow Texan, modeled his style after Holly, and – despite the significant cultural shifts that were underway in the mid-sixties – tapped into rock and roll’s eternally defiant spirit with this throwback track.
Of course, that defiance comes out on the losing end in “I Fought the Law.” Nevertheless, the song would become something of a standard in the years that followed – as evidenced by The Clash’s excellent 1979 cover. Fuller’s story, however, would end in tragedy. Just months after hitting the top ten with “I Fought the Law,” he was dead at the age of twenty-three.
“You’re a Big Girl”
After high school, I took what today is fashionably called a “gap year” before starting college. For the first half of it, I continued with what had been a summer/weekend job for the previous few years – working as a drywall finisher with my dad. As I’ve written elsewhere, music was an essential element of his job sites, and – having grown a bit tired of his modest collection of tapes, and exhausted of classic rock radio – I decided to help him boost his library for Christmas that year. I bought a cassette wallet and some blank tapes – making copies of several albums by contemporary artists that I knew he liked. Wanting to add one new, factory-sealed tape to the mix, I also purchased an album that I had never heard, but had heard him talk about frequently.
A few days later, we were back at work. Not much time passed before he put on Blood on the Tracks. The boom box was always set in a central location as we worked throughout whatever house we were at that day, making heavily lyrical music something of a challenge to really take in. The first two songs passed by pleasantly enough – by the way, both will be included in later installments of this list – but it was the third one that froze me in my tracks when I heard it.
I knew of Dylan, but had never really listened to him – at least not intentionally. I knew of “Dylan the Protest Singer.” I knew of “Dylan the Cultural Icon.” I knew of “Dylan the Great Lyricist.” However, it wasn’t even a lyric that got to me. It was the lonesome, pained wail that first appears at the fifty-three second mark of “You’re a Big Girl Now” that transformed “Dylan the Relic” – somebody else’s hero – into a living, breathing communicator of something far more universal than I had ever expected. It was only the tip of a particularly remarkable iceberg, but for the first time, I had seen it with my own eyes.
“Give Him a Great Big Kiss”
What’s the best non-sequitur in the history of pop music? Personally, I can think of three clear contenders: “he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil”; “close, very, very close”; and of course, “when I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V!” Fortunately, if I want to hear all three, I only need to turn to one song.
Even without those interjections, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” would be a magnificent track. Mary Weiss can hardly contain her enthusiasm for her beau, while the Ganser sisters provide a great give-and-take backing vocal performance. Throw in a fantastic boot-stomping chorus, and you have all of the makings of a perfect pop single.
“White Winter Hymnal”
The first single from their critically acclaimed self-titled debut, “White Winter Hymnal” is more than just a showcase for the gorgeous harmonies of Fleet Foxes, but it’s also that as well. While featuring just a scant few lines of lyrics, the track is an impressively dense – how can it possibly be wintery, springlike, summery, and autumnal? – example of Robin Pecknold’s song craft.
An abundance of indie folk groups had hit the scene before Fleet Foxes, but the Seattle quintet augmented their rustic songwriting with baroque-inspired arrangements that – when combined with their rich vocal harmonies – drew more than a few comparisons to The Beach Boys. Fleet Foxes is a remarkably consistent and assured debut, and “White Winter Hymnal” serves as its most intriguing invitation.
“Birdhouse in Your Soul”
Their most iconic single – and a fantastic ambassador for their major label debut, Flood – “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is a classic They Might be Giants track. Bookish, unapologetically geeky, and impossibly catchy, “Birdhouse” helped introduce the Brooklyn duo to an audience that reached far beyond the cult following that they had cultivated during their indie years.
Flood found John Linnell and John Flansburgh moving beyond the lo-fi production of their first two records – taking advantage of the resources available to a major label, without compromising the idiosyncrasies that had defined their earlier work. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” saw them at their most refined to date, with Linnell molding an endearing image into one of his most charming melodies.
“Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)”
A quintessential Phil Spector single, “Da Doo Ron Ron” was the producer’s first of many collaborations with the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Landing in the top five on both sides of the Atlantic, the song would offer further corroboration of Spector’s Midas touch.
Like most pop singles in 1963, “Da Doo Ron Ron” offers little lyrically, but the melody and spirited vocal performance by Dolores “LaLa” Brooks help to make up for any deficiencies. So too do the instrumental flourishes of Spector’s trusted Wrecking Crew, who crafted what was arguably the most impressive example of his famous Wall of Sound to date.
“Pusherman” is a standout among many from Curtis Mayfield’s spectacular soundtrack for the 1972 Blaxploitation film, Super Fly. The movie aimed to capture the gritty reality of the urban drug trade, but would attract controversy for its alleged glorification of drug pushers – a perception that Mayfield’s amiable falsetto in “Pusherman” may have helped to create.
Mayfield’s punctuated vocal lines are interjected with some of the funkiest music of his peak era. His band is in impeccable form throughout Super Fly, but especially so on this track. It may be the drums of Tyrone McCullen – whose only contribution to the soundtrack was on this song – that stand out the most, thanks to some help from the auxiliary percussion of Henry Gibson.
“Peek a Boo”
Mental illness is the elephant in the room in discussions of many great artists. However, it looms larger in the case of Daniel Johnston than it does for the likes of Syd Barrett, Thelonious Monk, or Brian Wilson – each of whom had enough commercial appeal to transcend the outsider status that Johnston was destined to retain. This makes the songs in which Johnston confronts his condition head-on particularly affecting, and in the case of “Peek a Boo,” absolutely devastating.
Over nine verses – not to mention several repetitions of a heartrending chorus – Johnston skirts the line between art and heavy, one-way conversation. He laments his anxiety, his insomnia, childhood dejection, an overbearing mother, unfulfilling employment, and the art that served as solace. Then, in a flash of unflinching, heartbreaking self-awareness, Johnston turns to his audience:
You can listen to these songs,
Have a good time and walk away.
But for me it’s not that easy.
I have to live these songs forever.
Please hear my cry for help, and save me from myself.
Such an outpouring of creativity that even two discs couldn’t contain it – necessitating a bonus EP be added to the package – Songs in the Key of Life was Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus. Housing several of Wonder’s greatest tracks, and covering a dizzying array of styles, Songs reaches a near peak on the late-album highlight, “As.”
Songs in the Key of Life saw Stevie Wonder turning away from the somewhat-insulated nature of his earlier albums, utilizing a cast of talented collaborators to make the most of a stellar set of compositions. “As” has several key contributions – from Mary Lee Whitney’s backing vocals to Herbie Hancock’s electric piano – but it’s Wonder who ultimately sells the track’s devotional lyrics, turning it into something sublime in the process.
“Two-Headed Boy Part II”
A work of absolute transcendence, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is at turns gorgeous, harrowing, draining, and life-affirming. Jeff Mangum’s emotional roller-coaster could have easily derailed at any point during its utterly gripping forty minutes, but it doesn’t, and Mangum absolutely nails the landing.
Building to a reprise of an early-album highlight, Aeroplane synthesizes its wildly divergent storylines into a muddled, but wholly impactful, closing. The titular protagonist is visited once again by the dream girl, and a transaction – platonic, romantic, or perhaps something even deeper – is made. However, like all beauty, she is fleeting. In the most direct line of the song, Mangum implores his glass-bound hero to hold his reverence in her absence. Then, he simply sets his guitar down and walks away.