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.
“I Will Dare”
While 1983’s Hootenanny saw The Replacements taking a turn in a more melodic direction from their roots on Minneapolis’ hardcore scene, the band’s newfound maturity truly came into focus on 1984’s Let It Be. Featuring what was easily Paul Westerberg’s most refined songwriting to date – and a few larks, for old times’ sake – the album was a milestone in a formative year for American indie rock.
Album opener, “I Will Dare” found the ‘Mats putting their best foot forward on a track that tapped into the jangle pop sound of the mid-eighties. In fact, it’s Peter Buck – the master practitioner of jangle pop – who plays the song’s buoyant guitar solo. The group’s most pristine production to date was tempered by Westerberg’s charming, shaggy dog slackerism, making for an irresistible mix of self-effacing ambition.
“Take Me Out”
Few songs scream “mid-2000s” louder than the breakthrough single from Franz Ferdinand, but “Take Me Out” transcends the short-lived dance-punk craze from which it emerged. Already thoroughly compelling in its tense first verse, the song deftly transitions into a skittering “all chorus” second section marked by its incessant beat and diabolically jagged guitar riff.
Like the famous assassinated archduke that the Glasgow band had named themselves after, “Take Me Out” combines decadence and violence into an intriguing blend. The dual interpretations of the title phrase are implied not only in Alex Kapranos’ lyrics, but in the sleekly sinister nature of the band’s danceable-but-jittery performance.
One of The Crickets’ finest singles – and a highlight of the group’s 1957 debut album – “Maybe Baby” stands among Buddy Holly’s most effortlessly charming tracks. Though simple in composition, the song demonstrates Holly’s mastery of the rock and roll single, and the valuable partnership that he had formed with producer Norman Petty.
While The Crickets would eventually become synonymous with Holly, “Maybe Baby” features another strong ensemble performance from his bandmates. Adding to the song’s appeal are the backing vocals of The Picks – regular Crickets collaborators, who provide a welcome response to Holly’s patented hiccupping lead vocals.
“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Though they were regulars on the global pop charts throughout their career, the same volatility that enabled Creedence Clearwater Revival to record five outstanding albums in a span of less than two years was also reflected in the tension that continually brewed between the group’s four members. Most significant was the rift between brothers John and Tom Fogerty.
It was Tom Fogerty’s impending departure from the band that would inspire John to write “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” – the highlight from Tom’s last album with the group, 1970’s Pendulum. John’s bittersweet lyrics reflect dark clouds and silver linings, all set to one of his most endearingly plaintive melodies.
“Twin Peaks Theme”
While much of its aura is gained through its association with David Lynch’s groundbreaking television program, Angelo Badalamenti’s theme for Twin Peaks is a captivating piece of music in its own right. Jazzy, spacious, and unquestionably dreamy, the track provides a perfect lead-in to Lynch’s off-kilter portrayal of the titular Pacific Northwest town.
Julee Cruise would record a vocal version of the track for her 1989 album Floating Into the Night – a collaboration with Lynch and Badalamenti. Though her take, “Falling,” is a remarkable song itself, it is the mystic ambience of Badalamenti’s instrumental version that – for me – stands as the most evocative realization of Lynch’s unique vision.
“21st Century Schizoid Man”
King Crimson made quite the first impression with “21st Century Schizoid Man” – the opening track to the group’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. After an opening verse that featured Greg Lake’s shredded vocals, the quartet launched into an extended, complex instrumental section that immediately established them as leaders in the nascent progressive rock scene.
Musical virtuosity had mostly just lurked around the edges of sixties rock music, but – for better or worse – King Crimson would ultimately help to usher in a newfound emphasis on musicianship in rock. While this direction would yield decidedly mixed results in the years to come, “21st Century Schizoid Man” provided an intriguing blueprint for other “prog” artists to follow.
The title track to David Bowie’s twenty-fifth album, “Blackstar” was released several weeks ahead of its parent album, and provided a fascinating early glimpse into what would be Bowie’s most spellbinding work in decades. Hauntingly atmospheric, jazzy, and undoubtedly complex, the song worked its way toward the top of many 2015 year-end critics’ lists, despite its late entry into the race.
When it finally arrived – on Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday – Blackstar (the album) offered a stunning confirmation of the artistic revitalization hinted at in “Blackstar” (the song). Rhythmic, exploratory, and deeply morose, the album was an undeniable triumph. It seemed to promise a bold new phase in Bowie’s incomparable career. And then, he was gone.
“I Wanna Be Adored”
Standing at the crossroads between the psychedelic, jangle pop eighties and the dance-inspired rockism of the nineties, The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut was both a synthesis of the recent past, and a prescient predictor of the near future. Hindsight has revealed the album to be a critical landmark on the road to mid-nineties Britpop, and its opening track – “I Wanna Be Adored” – stands as one of its most captivating moments.
“I Wanna Be Adored” trades in atmosphere – forging a cavernous sound that would echo in the developing shoegaze scene. Perhaps borrowing a posture from fellow countryman Morrissey, vocalist Ian Brown sets his sights on nothing less than adoration – though his lyrics reveal little beyond the title phrase. The Stone Roses would ultimately achieve adoration, as the record would become one of the most beloved British releases of its generation.
Fela Kuti was arguably the most celebrated and controversial African musician of the seventies. A frequent critic of the Nigerian government, “Zombie” found Kuti issuing his most scathing musical attack to date. Set to one of his most infectious compositions, the track was a bold critique of Nigerian soldiers, who Kuti argued acted like zombies by blindly following the orders of their superiors.
“Zombie” was a powerful anthem, and its popularity among the Nigerian people would ultimately result in aggressive countermeasures from the government. Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic commune – already a target of the authorities – would be attacked in response to the song. Kuti himself was injured in the attack, and his elderly mother would die after being thrown from a second-floor window.
The most immediately appealing track from Portishead’s influential 1994 debut Dummy, “Sour Times” was the album’s second single, and would become the group’s breakout hit. An intriguing mix of film noir and hip-hop inspired production, the song sounded like little else on alternative radio when it landed in 1994.
Despite its unconventional nature, “Sour Times” features several inviting components. Adrian Utley’s sparse guitar lines provide a slinky counterpart to the song’s sinister backdrop, and Beth Gibbons delivers a plaintive vocal performance that adds a delicately human element to the track’s cold, mechanical pulse.
One of the most iconic instrumentals of all-time, and the classic surf rock track, “Miserlou” is the shining moment in the sun for the “King of the Surf Guitar,” Dick Dale. Immortalized by its use in countless pop culture artifacts – perhaps most notably in the opening titles of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – “Miserlou” actually dates back (at least) to the early twentieth century, when it was performed by Eastern Mediterranean musicians.
Dale’s iconic recording of the song provides a nod to its folk roots – and Dale’s own Lebanese heritage – but was a thoroughly modern sounding recording when it arrived in 1962. Taking full advantage of the reverb feature of his Fender Twin amp, Dale aggressively picks through the song’s jittery melody. Its tension, drama, and cascading dives made “Miserlou” a perfect aural accompaniment to the surf craze that was overtaking Dale’s own southern California locale.
“The Harder They Come”
The title-track to the 1972 film that served as a starring vehicle for Jimmy Cliff, “The Harder They Come” was also the highlight of the soundtrack that ultimately helped to bring reggae music to an international audience. Taken together, the film and its soundtrack would make Cliff one of Jamaica’s most important cultural ambassadors.
Written by Cliff, “The Harder They Come” is characteristically upbeat musically, but it’s also an ode to defiance and persistence. Appearing twice on the soundtrack album, the song takes on the feel of a theme – even figuring into the plot point of the film – but its lyrical content would make it an anthem.
“A Quick One, While He’s Away”
There are several different released versions of “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” each of which is well worth a listen. Originally appearing as the pseudo-title track of The Who’s second album, the song would preview their most ambitious work, and eventually become a centerpiece of the band’s legendary live performances.
Fans of The Who all have their own preferred version of the multi-part epic – mine is the fantastic Rock and Roll Circus performance linked below. However, all takes of “A Quick One” provide a glimpse of Pete Townshend’s increasingly complex writing, the band’s sly sense of humor, and the musicianship that would make The Who a live juggernaut.
“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”
Duke Ellington was unquestionably one of the primary influences on the emergence of swing music, but this 1932 single found Ellington to be a fine practitioner of the sound in his own right. Providing ample evidence of his ability to adapt to the times, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” showcased the skill that would keep Ellington a relevant writer and performer throughout a career that spanned a half century.
Ellington only surrounded himself with the finest musicians, and the ensemble featured on the original recording of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is no exception. Even still, special mention must be made for the vocals of Ivie Anderson – a frequent collaborator during one of Ellington’s most rewarding eras. Her vocals are easily as expressive as the instrumental solos of Johnny Hodges (alto sax) and Joe Nanton (trombone), and would add a new phrase to the American dance lexicon.
One of several highlights from OutKast’s monumental third album, 1998’s Aquemini, “Rosa Parks” stands among the Atlanta duo’s finest moments on record. Featuring some of the most eclectic production work of their career, the song adds a rustic, acoustic vibe to their signature blend of futuristic funk-inspired hip-hop.
While it was an artistic triumph, “Rosa Parks” generated a bit of controversy, due to its unauthorized – and somewhat-confusing – association with the Civil Rights icon. The famous instigator of the Montgomery Bus Boycott would ultimately sue the group and their label for misappropriating her legacy, eventually forcing OutKast to settle after a prolonged legal battle.
While it’s not the most iconic title-track in Etta James’ catalog, “Tell Mama” is a captivating slice of southern soul from one of the most commanding vocalists of her time. Bolstered by a brassy instrumental backing, the song is a rousing, upbeat track that proves that James was more than just a great balladeer.
With its boisterous Muscle Shoals horns, “Tell Mama” would provide Etta James with her first chart placement in years – revitalizing a career that had seemingly gone cold after her early success. It remains one of the best soul tracks of the genre’s golden era, and a highlight from a truly outstanding talent.
One of the last songs written by Ian Curtis prior to his 1980 suicide – and the final song recorded by Joy Division – “Ceremony” would eventually become the debut single by New Order, the group that formed in the wake of Curtis’ death. As such, the song would ultimately serve as something of a tribute to a departed friend and bandmate, while helping to launch the career of another critically influential group in the process.
New Order would twice record “Ceremony,” issuing the different takes as both a 7″ and 12″ single. Debates continue as to which is the preferred version: the raw 7″ take, or the more polished recording that was issued as a 12″ single. Both are powerful testaments to the group’s uniquely atmospheric sound, and their resolve to continue in the wake of tragedy.
In many quantifiable ways, Ray Davies was the cleverest British songwriter of his generation. Davies’ signature wit is on plain display throughout 1969’s outstanding Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire, and nowhere more than on the album’s centerpiece, “Shangri-La” – a celebration/critique of British middle-class life.
Davies had examined similar themes before – most notably in 1968’s masterful The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society – but “Shangri-La” found his bandmates providing an equally compelling instrumental backing. Morphing from a harpsichord-heavy baroque folk track, “Shangri-La” builds in intensity – peaking with the perfectly Davies-ian bridge, which finds Ray mocking the naming of the cookie-cutter housing models that lined the streets of the song’s suburban utopia.
“Burning Down the House”
Having released four genre-defying albums in a span of just over three years, Talking Heads seemed to take an eternity to arrive at their fifth album, 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. Though it found the group adopting their most radio-friendly sound to date, the album retained the exploratory approach that had made the band New Wave stars.
Released as the first single from Speaking in Tongues, “Burning Down the House” would become the band’s first track to reach the top ten of the American pop charts. Molding the polyrhythmic funk of 1980’s Remain in Light into something wholly accessible, it would become the biggest hit of their career. For all the brilliance of the studio version, the song – like most of those on Speaking in Tongues – would reach its full potential in a live setting. I’ve included the incredible performance from 1984’s Stop Making Sense as evidence.
Kraftwerk were to electronic music what The Beatles were to rock. The German quartet proved the vitality and possibility of their preferred medium as something that was not merely a fad, but that could reach the realm of high art. Their 1977 album, Trans-Europe Express, was the pinnacle of their career, and it opens with one of the group’s most inviting tracks.
“Europe Endless” beams with optimism. Even before Ralf Hütter’s vocals enter, the group’s warm synths express a vision of the bright future that the song – and the suite-like masterwork that follows – seems to promise. Kraftwerk would explore these themes throughout their career, but rarely in such perfect melodiousness as they did here.