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.
The cover of Ride’s debut album – 1990’s Nowhere – features a picture of a giant wave in the middle of an unidentifiable ocean. Depending on the particular pressing, the image ranges from a pale grey to a deep blue, but the message remains the same nonetheless. It’s a visual approximation of the album’s overwhelming sound – a sound that first takes hold on the album’s captivating opener, “Seagull.”
Ride were among the central figures in the UK’s burgeoning shoegaze scene. While like-minded groups such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive tended to prioritize the guitar – adding layer upon layer to create a disorienting effect that often swallowed the other instruments – “Seagull” gives equal weight to the band’s rhythm section. Introduced by a restive beat and a bass line by way of Paul McCartney, the rhythm work is an essential component to the track’s wall of sound.
Of course, those guitars are plenty captivating as well. Thickly reverberated chords push against a jangly backdrop, but both ultimately give way to aggressively wah-pedaled leads during the song’s instrumental breaks. It’s a fulling engulfing sound – one as tuneful as it is chaotic.
“Son of a Preacher Man”
Originally written with Aretha Franklin in mind, “Son of a Preacher Man” would instead become a massive hit for Dusty Springfield – reaching the top ten in both the United States and her native Britain in 1969. While that would prompt Franklin to reconsider her decision to turn the song down, Springfield’s version remains the definitive take.
Featuring an all-star cast of Memphis musicians, “Son of a Preacher Man” was part of a concentrated effort by Springfield to distance herself from the pop hits that a had made her a star in the early sixties. She sounds fully at ease on the track – her voice commanding, but sliding gently between the song’s bright brass and the backing vocals of The Sweet Inspirations.
“Son of a Preacher Man” would serve as the centerpiece to Springfield’s 1969 album, Dusty in Memphis. An attempt by Springfield to recast herself as a serious soul singer, the record was a commercial disappointment, but an artistic triumph. It stands as the most highly regarded work of her career.
Annie Clark’s third record as St. Vincent – 2011’s Strange Mercy – was her biggest critical hit to date, and proved to be her commercial breakthrough as well. While the album is a front-to-back marvel of sharp songwriting and forward-thinking production, its lead single towers over the rest of the tracklist.
“Cruel” is propelled by a pulsing dance beat, but it’s Clark’s jagged guitar riff – doubled on the synth – that serves as the song’s main hook and signature. Equally notable are her warped guitar solo and the track’s frantic bridge, which leads into a jubilant final chorus that gives an almost celebratory nature to her repetitions of the song’s title.
Few artists that are featured on this list are anywhere near their career peak at present. While Strange Mercy remains St. Vincent’s best work to date, I wouldn’t bet against Annie Clark outdoing herself at some point. Until then, “Cruel” stands as a plenty-impressive peak.
Van Morrison departed the Belfast R&B group Them in 1966, after a successful but contentious American tour. Morrison would waste little time before embarking on a solo career, entering the studio in the spring of 1967. The first song to emerge from those sessions, “Brown-Eyed Girl” would serve as a springboard to a remarkable decade of work to follow.
“Brown-Eyed Girl” trades in instant nostalgia. Its opening riff is immediately recognizable, and conjures up images of the idyllic past that Morrison’s lyrics further investigate. Though he would soon take a turn toward more complicated, impressionistic poetry, the simple pleasures of “Brown-Eyed Girl” convey a universal sentimentality that even the highest peaks of Astral Weeks fail to top.
It’s that universally nostalgic appeal to young love that keeps the song in heavy rotation. Though it’s almost defiantly uncool, “Brown-Eyed Girl” has always struck me as something of a “rite of passage” kind of a song. It’s possible to fall in love with it, but even easier to fall in love to it.
Having effectively retired from protest songs in the mid-sixties, few imagined that Bob Dylan would return to topical material after 1975’s introspective, confessional Blood on the Tracks. Then again, forty-five years later, Dylan still manages to completely confound expectations.
The cause célèbre that drew Dylan back to folk protest was the conviction of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. In 1967, Carter was convicted on three counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. “Hurricane” details the night of Carter’s arrest, the flimsy nature of the “eyewitness” accounts against him, the racism and corruption of law enforcement, and the trial that Dylan describes as a “pig circus.” It’s a stirring account, delivered in a fiery performance highlighted by Dylan’s scathing vocals and Scarlet Rivera’s haunting violin.
Dylan’s song brought increased attention to Carter’s case, but contrary to popular belief, it did not set him free – at least not directly. Rubin Carter would serve nearly two decades in Rahway State Prison for a crime that he did not commit. In 1985, his conviction would be overturned on the grounds that it had been “based on racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”
“My Blue Heaven”
I’ve always found there to be an eerily spectral quality to the recordings of the 1920s. Some of it can be chalked up to the “distant” sound quality, and some due to the the decade’s cultural remnants from the Victorian Era – a vast source of creepiness. By the end of the twenties, advancements in recording quality would make it possible to record a much wider range of sounds, paving the way for the big band recordings that would become immensely popular in the 1930s. This also allowed for a novelty on the other end of the dynamic spectrum.
The “whispering vocalist” fad is most dramatically exemplified by Whispering Jack Smith’s 1927 single, “Me and My Shadow.” However, Gene Austin’s recording of “My Blue Heaven” captures a similar mood in a far superior song. Written by George Whiting and Walter Donaldson in 1924, the song made the rounds on the Vaudeville circuit before Austin recorded it in 1927. Featuring Austin’s voice, a gentle piano and cello arrangement, and a guest “bird caller,” the song uses its minimalist approach to perfectly serve Donaldson’s gorgeous melody.
It’s that melody, and Whiting’s sentimental lyrics, that would make “My Blue Heaven” a standard. However, despite an abundance of worthy versions by iconic artists, none have matched the singular charm of Austin’s original recording.
“I Am a Scientist”
There’s prolific, and then there’s Robert Pollard. Even while working as a fourth grade teacher, the Dayton, Ohio native would spend late nights and weekends writing and recording an uncountable number of songs with his drinking buddies. Home-recorded – with album covers often individually handmade – Pollard’s rotating cast of characters in Guided by Voices would self-release hundreds of songs before anyone ever bothered paying attention.
“I Am a Scientist” finds Pollard crafting something of a bruised love letter to the creative process. Its second verse contains a set of lines that only a restless creator or collector of music – of which Pollard is both – could ever truly understand:
I am a pharmacist, prescriptions I will fill you
Potions, pills and medicines to ease your painful life
I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock & roll
The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free
Pollard’s bottomless pit would eventually set him free from his workaday life. Bee Thousand – the 1994 album from which “I Am a Scientist” was drawn – would become an unexpected critical smash, and out of nowhere, Guided by Voices were the most buzzed-about independent band in America. Twenty-five years later, Pollard continues to live out his rock star daydreams, releasing dozens of songs a year in a variety of monikers, but none that have ever captured the combination of hunger and heartbreak in quite the same way as this one.
It’s true that Elvis was not a songwriter. It’s true that he merely popularized a style that Black musicians had been already performing for years. It’s true that Big Mama Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog” is superior – patience, dear readers – but even if Elvis Presley’s take was not rock & roll’s Big Bang moment, it’s still a jam.
Initially released as the B-side to “Don’t Be Cruel” (#965) – how’s that for an A/B combo – “Hound Dog” would eventually become the biggest hit of Elvis’ career. It was his June 5th, 1956 performance on the Milton Berle Show that would simultaneously launch Presley into superstardom and infamy. Kids were enthralled. Parents were outraged. Regardless of any precedent, it was a watershed moment in American popular culture.
Some might rush to argue that the moment looks quaint by today’s standards. Those arguments are often centered around some kind of half-assed commentary on “moral decline in pop culture” from people with absolutely no knowledge of Lucille Bogan (seriously, don’t look her up if you’re faint of heart). Forget that. Even if Elvis wasn’t all that original in hindsight, the fact that he brought this music to the masses made him revolutionary.
“Holiday in Cambodia”
Released in advance of Dead Kennedys’ full-length debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, “Holiday in Cambodia” was a fascinating early glimpse into one of the most important American punk records of all-time. Musically and lyrically, the track demonstrates the uniquely compelling qualities of a band that were as influential as they were controversial.
Introduced by an ominous bass line, “Holiday in Cambodia” gives way to East Bay Ray’s sinister, snarling surf guitar riff. More immediately musical than the vast majority of what was happening on the American hardcore scene at the time, the track doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of intensity in its pursuit of melody.
Equally attention-grabbing are the lyrics of the band’s frontman, Jello Biafra – who would establish himself as one of punk’s great satirists. Despite his heavily leftist leanings, Biafra made no distinction between using his fluttering vocals to skewer targets on both sides of the political spectrum. “Holiday in Cambodia” finds him criticizing the phony leftism of young, wealthy neoliberals – contrasting their life of privilege with the mass suffering endured under the genocidal dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge.
“Just One Look”
Founded in 1947, Atlantic Records would become one of the most successful labels in America, and a critical force in the emergence of soul music. Occupying a space between the pristine sounds of Motown and the gritty southern stylings of Stax, Atlantic carved out a valuable niche in the R&B market, launching the careers of some of the most iconic American artists in the process.
One of Atlantic’s greatest releases simply fell into the label’s lap in 1963, when Doris Troy submitted “Just One Look” as a demo. Recorded in a ten-minute session, the track features an urgent vocal performance by Troy – who co-wrote the song with Gregory Carroll. Atlantic head Jerry Wexler was reportedly so impressed with the recording that he decided to release the song in its demo form.
“Just One Look” would be Troy’s only single to chart. While the song would also prove to be a hit for the likes of The Hollies and Linda Ronstadt, it’s Troy’s passionate vocals that make her original version one of the finest pop singles of the sixties.
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
1965’s Rubber Soul marked the beginning of The Beatles’ most visionary and rewarding era, and the point in which they truly started to view the idea of the album as a unified artistic statement. While consistently remarkable, no track on the record better represented the group’s shift toward a more creative direction than “Norwegian Wood.”
Lyrically, “Norwegian Wood” was far more imagistic than the relatively simple love songs of the band’s past. Mostly written by John Lennon – with Paul McCartney contributing to the bridge – the track provides selective details of an extramarital affair. Heavily influenced by the introspective lyrics of Bob Dylan, Lennon embraces a folky backing to set a storytelling mood.
That mood is a critical element that sets “Norwegian Wood” – and most of Rubber Soul – apart from the band’s earlier work. Heavily into their pot phase, the song introduced the deliberately stoned vibe of the album – following the uptempo opener, “Drive My Car.” Further adding to the disorienting effect was the song’s most innovative element: George Harrison’s use of the sitar. Having become familiar with the instrument during the filming of Help!, Harrison was eager to work it into the band’s sound. His immediately iconic riff, and the drone of the song’s verses, would represent the instrument’s first use by a Western pop act.
“Anarchy in the U.K.”
The idea of punk existed well before the mid-seventies. Whether it was created by The Stooges, MC5, Death, Link Wray, Patti Smith, The Sonics, or any number of sixties garage bands remains a source of legitimate debate. However, in the UK, punk’s critical moment came in 1976. While there were two possible contenders for that “defining moment” – depending which side of the fence you stood on – they both involved the same group.
For purists, it happened on October 8, 1976. It was on that date that Britain’s most dangerous band, Sex Pistols, signed a contract with EMI, a major record label. For a group that had railed against the political and musical establishment, the move was seen as a cynical cash-in – an unforgivable betrayal of punk’s ethos.
For the rest of Britain, that moment occurred on November 26 – the day that Sex Pistols released their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K..” A sneering diatribe, the song set the nation on notice – though today, it’s hard to believe that something this catchy and anthemic could have been considered threatening. Then again, the band would become equally notorious for their antics in the press, and their combustible nature. Within two years – which included radio bans, label fallout, and the death of bassist Sid Vicious – the Pistols were no more.
There’s a lot to love about the fourth single from Radiohead’s 1995 classic, The Bends – for instance, its promotional clip that still ranks among the most memorable music videos of all-time. However, this seems like a prime opportunity to focus on the guitar-based sound that a vocal segment of the band’s fanbase has been pining for a return to for twenty years.
“Just” may be the first true glimpse of greatness from the band’s sonic architect, Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood – who has since established himself as a sought-after film composer – created a cinematic soundscape on “Just.” The most attention-grabbing element is his manically ascending riff, but every piece – from the opening truncated acoustic strums, the lounge-y bridge, and Greenwood’s closing solo – is perfectly crafted without sounding even remotely fussed-over.
The drama of the instrumental track is well-served by Thom Yorke’s accusatory vocals. Like Greenwood, Yorke took a massive step forward on The Bends, both as a lyricist and a vocalist. The band would redefine the parameters of rock music on their next two albums, but The Bends remains something of a platonic ideal for many listeners.
“Surfer Girl” was a song of firsts for Brian Wilson. It was the first song that he ever wrote – inspired by his first girlfriend, and modeled after the melody of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It was the first song that he produced himself. It was also the first Beach Boys recording to demonstrate the melodic complexity that would reach full fruition on 1966’s Pet Sounds.
Aside from its significance in Wilson’s artistic development, “Surfer Girl” is simply a stunning pop song. Though written before the formation of The Beach Boys, the band would hold off recording a proper version of it until 1963, when it became the title-track to their third LP. By that point, the group had established the “fun in the sun” styling that would make them a sensation, but “Surfer Girl” introduced an intriguing new dynamic to their sound.
As a ballad, “Surfer Girl” provided ample space for the harmony vocals that the Wilson brothers had spent a lifetime perfecting. It was their blend of voices – plus those of Al Jardine and Mike Love – that would truly become Wilson’s signature, and “Surfer Girl” is where that home-honed skill was first put on display for the wider world to see.
Composed by Thelonious Monk in 1944, “‘Round Midnight” was already a standard by the time Miles Davis recorded it with his First Great Quintet in 1956. Featured as the title track to Davis’ first album with Columbia Records, it stands as one of the most beloved tracks in the venerated trumpeter’s discography.
Davis took the laid back feel of Monk’s original 1947 recording to an extreme. His trumpet, played with his signature Harmon mute, personifies the “cool” sound that Davis had spent the previous decade perfecting – providing a striking contrast to the fiery temperament that had become his other trademark. John Coltrane gives an equally alluring performance, matching Davis’ nuance in an impressive solo.
Released in 1957 – upon Davis’ completion of a commitment to Prestige – ‘Round About Midnight would usher in one of the longest and most rewarding partnerships between an artist and a record label. While with Columbia, Davis would revolutionize jazz music, time and time again. However, this early triumph would rarely be surpassed.
“I Fall to Pieces”
Legend has it that “I Fall to Pieces” found its way to Patsy Cline during an argument between producer Owen Bradley and singer Roy Dusky. Written by the then-unknown songwriting team of Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran, the song had been pitched to – and turned down by – Dusky, Brenda Lee, and others, before Cline asked Bradley if she could record it.
Having already proven her crossover appeal with 1957’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” Cline seemed like a natural fit for the song, but her sagging career gave Bradley pause. Ultimately, he gave her the track, which would become her first A-side for Decca Records, and a hit on both the country and pop charts.
“I Fall to Pieces” may not have been intended for Cline, but she takes full ownership of the song with a commanding performance. The backing vocals of The Jordanaires provide a perfect complement, as does the descending guitar riff that gives the song a mournful, late-night feel, and stands as the track’s signature hook.
“Walk Away Renée”
Perhaps the quintessential baroque pop song, “Walk Away Renée” would become the best-known track by the New York group, The Left Banke. Primarily written by keyboardist Michael Brown, the song was inspired by bassist Tom Finn’s girlfriend – also the inspiration for the band’s other hit, “Pretty Ballerina.”
Defined by its lush soundscape of harpsichord, strings, and flute, “Walk Away Renée” capitalized on the baroque-inspired arrangements of contemporary tracks by The Beatles and The Beach Boys. The song’s vocals – delivered by Steve Martin Caro – were so plaintive, that even Levi Stubbs’ performance in the subsequent Four Tops cover sound tempered by comparison.
Writing a song about a bandmate’s girlfriend doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for long-term group cohesion – even if the song became a massive hit. By the time that “Walk Away Renée” found the upper reaches of the pop charts, The Left Banke had essentially disbanded. Subsequent reformations and breakups would follow, but the group would never again repeat the magic of their signature track.
“Between the Wars”
The video below depicts an odd scene. In it, Billy Bragg performs his new song, “Between the Wars,” on Top of the Pops – Britain’s pop-chart-oriented television program. The audience – normally accustomed to dancing along to the latest hits – stands in still, silent respect.
The fact that Bragg was performing the song, rather than miming it, is significant. Even more jarring however, are the “fun facts” that scroll across the bottom of the screen. They reveal that Bragg had written the song in solidarity with the controversial UK miners’ strike. Supporters of the miners had argued that the British media – including the BBC, who aired Top of the Pops – had been unfairly critical of the strike, adding another interesting wrinkle to the scene.
Bragg’s performance is compelling, austere, and – most significantly – substantive. It was an anomaly, not only for the conservative eighties, but for pretty much the entire history of popular music. However, buried within his heartfelt ballad are some of the most strikingly affecting lines of his career. It’s the track’s penultimate verse that has always stuck with me:
Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draftsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I’ll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage
“When the Levee Breaks”
As I stated in an earlier entry on “Immigrant Song” (#693), I think Led Zeppelin were a fine band, but nowhere near the towering figures of legend that they’re made out to be. Occasionally, Zeppelin managed to match their myth, and nowhere more so than on the colossal closing track to 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV.
John Bonham’s massive drum beat serves as a call to attention, opening “When the Levee Breaks” with an epic intensity worthy of closing out an album with a titanic reputation. The song is padded out with equally impressive performances from Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones, who collectively manage to craft something that sounds like a tribute to – and an extension of – the delta blues recordings that the group clearly held in high reverence.
Make no mistake. Led Zeppelin could write excellent songs. They had more than a few near misses for this list. However, when I reach for one of their albums, I want to feel that thunderous power that makes them such a critical touchstone for so many other music lovers. This is the closest that they get to convincing me.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me”
For a brief moment in early 1966, Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators stood at the vanguard of rock and roll music. The group had just released their first single, which demonstrated a sound that they themselves had dubbed “psychedelic rock” – a then-unheard-of term that would soon be on the tongue of every musician, listener, critic, and record label employee.
The 13th Floor Elevators invoked psychedelia in a number of ways. The cover of their first album was deliberately trippy. They used studio trickery to create a disorienting sound. They literally had a dude playing an electrified jug. However, the most psych aspect of the Elevators was singer/songwriter/guitarist Roky Erickson. It was Erickson whose manic vocals and penchant for experimentation would turn “You’re Gonna Miss Me” from a standard rock breakup song to a mind-altering experience.
While adventurous listeners were happy to temporarily lose themselves in the wild sounds of 13th Floor Elevators, Roky Erickson would go down a much darker path. His experimentation with LSD, coupled with a not-yet-diagnosed schizophrenia, would make him one of rock and roll’s first “acid casualties.” In 1968, he would begin a years-long stint in a psychiatric hospital, cutting short a career that had begun with such promise.