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.
“Some Velvet Morning”
One of the most bizarrely evocative songs to ever become a pop hit, “Some Velvet Morning” was the apex of a fruitful collaboration between Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Initially released as a single in late 1967, the alluring duet would become the centerpiece to the pair’s 1968 LP, Nancy & Lee.
Written and produced by Hazlewood, “Some Velvet Morning” creates a stirring and perplexing atmosphere. Hazlewood’s verses recall his background in country music. Richly arranged and drenched in reverb, they evoke an ominous scene – perhaps a desolate, dusty plain. Sinatra’s verses assume the perspective of the mythical Phaedra – disorienting in both their shift to waltz-time and piercing orchestration.
The juxtaposition of voices and time signatures gave “Some Velvet Morning” a decidedly trippy vibe – one that was undoubtedly fitting for the era, yet oddly recognizable at the same time. It’s a hauntingly majestic track that discovered an entirely novel approach to psychedelia. As an added bonus, Strange Currencies contributor, Tim Ryan Nelson, does a pretty mean karaoke version in which he plays both Lee and Nancy.
Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads are among the most fundamental American music ever recorded. Poetic, heartbreaking, humorous, and (most importantly) defiant, they find one of the country’s quintessential artists offering both timely and timeless commentary on one of the nation’s worst crises.
In the mid-nineties, hoping to find a way to bring her father’s unfinished work to life, Nora Guthrie enlisted Billy Bragg to write music for songs that Woody had written lyrics for, but had never recorded. Faced with an abundance of material, Bragg recruited Wilco to help him flesh out dozens of songs, resulting in the three-volume Mermaid Avenue project.
Mermaid Avenue – particularly the first volume – shows the impressive range of Woody Guthrie’s talents, and the care with which Bragg and Wilco approached the endeavor. While there are excellent songs in a variety of styles, it’s a long-lost Dust Bowl ballad that stands as the project’s finest moment.
“California Stars” is a song of intense longing. To know what the very idea of California represented to the thousands of Okie migrants who headed west on Route 66 as their homes were literally being blown away, is to understand the subtext of Guthrie’s simple but poetic lines. To know that the dream of California proved to be elusive for so many of those migrants adds a heartbreaking element to Jeff Tweedy’s melancholic melody, and the wistful instrumentation of his band. This is, quite simply, one of the greatest American folk songs of all-time, and the story of its long and difficult road to realization only makes it even more remarkable.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
I held out on voluntarily listening to Elton John for a long time. Growing up, his hits were a constant fixture of the classic rock radio stations that always seemed to be on in the background, but I never felt all that compelled to approach him as an album artist. I’ve since picked up his requisite five records from the first half of the seventies – the ones that made him one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. In general, I’d argue that those albums are all fine. There is, however, one track that I think far outpaces the rest.
I remembered the melody from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” from when I was a child, but for whatever reason, the song, its title, and its creator never synched up in my mind. Somehow, despite its apparent ubiquity, I had probably gone twenty-five or thirty years without hearing it, before listening to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (the album) on a random, solo afternoon drive down a rural Oregon highway.
Once the chorus arrived – and the melody that can only be described as “breathtaking” hit – it was like being transported back in time, listening to AM radio in the back of my parents’ station wagon in 1985. I will say, it’s a rather singular pleasure when you get a second chance to hear a great song for the first time.
“Do You Realize??”
At some point during the nineties, The Flaming Lips completed their metamorphosis from hillbilly punk weirdos into the most oddly poignant band in American rock music. Having embraced their fortunate status as a cult band with a major label budget, the group took a turn toward participatory, life-affirming music with the “Parking Lot Experiment” that became the Zaireeka album.
Zaireeka‘s innovations in soundscapes would lead to more conventionally stunning results on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin – an album of lush arrangements and affecting meditations on life and mortality. Those themes would return for 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and nowhere more effectively than on the album’s first single, “Do You Realize??”
“Do You Realize??” is Wayne Coyne’s worldview in a microcosm, delivered in an irresistible three-and-a-half-minute pop song. The orchestration that had shaded The Soft Bulletin returns, as does the bittersweet nature of Coyne’s “live for the moment” mantra. The track would earn the Lips their biggest commercial success to date, and – in many ways – it stands as something of a theme song for the Oklahoma group.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
After a dalliance with baroque pop and psychedelia that consumed much of 1966 and all of 1967, The Rolling Stones returned to their blues-based roots on 1968’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Ultimately, the track would usher in the band’s most artistically successful era, as it served as something of a template for the rocking, rootsy four-album stretch from 1968’s Beggars Banquet to 1972’s Exile on Main St.
Opening with chugging power chords that lead into the song’s iconic riff, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” eschews the ornate accoutrements of the group’s recent work – creating something more visceral, but every bit as tuneful. Keith Richards and Brian Jones steal the show with their interlocked guitar work, but the entire band feeds off of the track’s sense of spontaneity.
I happen to love the Stones’ psychedelic era, probably even more than the aforementioned four-album run. However, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” shows the band in their natural element – no longer chasing the artier impulses of their peers like The Beatles and The Kinks, and instead, forging an iconic sound of their own.
“God Bless the Child”
While Billie Holiday is considered by many to be the best jazz vocalist of all-time, she sang only a relatively small number of self-written songs during her career. First recorded in 1941, “God Bless the Child” stands as the most celebrated of her compositions.
“God Bless the Child” occupies a comfortable sweet spot between the upbeat material that Holiday made her name with as a vocalist for the Teddy Wilson Orchestra, and the downbeat songs that occupy the center of her considerable legacy. Warmly orchestrated by a nine-piece group, the reserved performances of the musicians are perfectly complementary to Holiday’s unmistakable vocals.
Due to a variety of factors – not the least of which was the persistent bias against singers, particularly women, writing their own songs – Holiday would rarely find her name in the small print of her record’s labels. However, “God Bless the Child” proves that her gifts were not just limited to her remarkable interpretive abilities.
“Here Comes Your Man”
There’s something deeply satisfying that happens when a generally subversive band or artist embraces their melodic side. Particularly when that melodic side feels every bit as natural as their impulse for eccentricity. 1989’s Doolittle is an album chock full with hooks, but they often appear in songs that are designed to repel as much as they attract. There’s no such tension present in “Here Comes Your Man.”
The fondness for sixties pop that had always lurked around the edges of Pixies’ sound was pushed to the forefront on “Here Comes Your Man.” Whether it’s Joey Santiago’s memorable 12-string guitar riff, Kim Deal’s charming backing vocals, the title’s allusion to The Velvet Underground, or the opening chord that harkens back to “A Hard Day’s Night,” every element of the song seems designed for maximum appeal. The fact that it wasn’t a massive hit is an indictment of the fickle nature of the pop market, not the band’s song craft.
During a 2004 Pixies show in Phoenix, Black Francis introduced “Here Comes Your Man” – a song that the band had once refused to play live, or even lip-synch to in its video – by stating “this song kept me out of jail one night.” I don’t remember all the details – or if the typically-cryptic Francis even shared them with us – but I’d like to think that whatever happened was some small form of karmic retribution for writing a perfect song.
“Famous Blue Raincoat”
One of Leonard Cohen’s most haunting tracks, “Famous Blue Raincoat” is the centerpiece of 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. It’s hard to tell if it’s one of the former or latter, but given its cryptic qualities, it’s entirely possible that “Famous Blue Raincoat” is an encapsulation of love, hate, and any number of equally complicated emotions in between.
Written in the form of a letter, “Famous Blue Raincoat” picks up a conversation between two acquaintances, and based on the nature of its lyrics, it’s difficult to tell if it is a correspondence between friends or adversaries. The fact that the listener is dropped into the monologue with no context only makes its ambiguous and vaguely foreboding references all the more compelling.
The one thing that truly comes through to the listener is the atmosphere that Cohen describes in the song’s first verse. The frigid, late December setting of his New York apartment on Clinton Street is vividly expressed in the track’s sparse arrangement, its brusque allusions, and the faintly whispered, ghostly backing vocals.
While 1997’s Von was technically their debut, Sigur Rós truly arrived at their signature sound on their sophomore release, 1999’s Ágætis byrjun. After opening with a brief, instrumental table-setter, “Svefn-g-englar” displayed the band’s stunning, newfound depth on a track that matched the group’s experimental impulses with the stark beauty of their native Iceland.
A combination of elements both familiar and alien, “Svefn-g-englar” builds with the same kind of slowly evolving drama of contemporary post-rock groups, but pairs its icy exterior with a warmly human core. Jón Þór Birgisson’s vocals could be described as “cooing,” and though they are largely a construction of his own invented language, they convey a sweetly melancholic message all the same.
It’s both easy and tempting to retroactively assign a sound to the locale of its creator. Especially having never been to Iceland, I can’t really say that Sigur Rós or Björk have truly captured their homeland in an auditory sense, but they certainly make me want to see it for myself.
“Ruby My Dear”
In 1947, the brilliant pianist and composer Thelonious Monk signed to Blue Note Records. The label had recently turned its focus to the bebop sounds popularized by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie after World War II. In Monk, Blue Note had found a true visionary – one who could soften the edges of bebop, without sacrificing the idiosyncrasies that made him such a rare talent.
Recorded in October 1947, during Monk’s second session for Blue Note, “Ruby My Dear” was one of his most evocative compositions. Delicately melodic, while displaying the sound that would make him immediately recognizable, the song would soon become a jazz standard.
Monk himself would record “Ruby My Dear” for no less than four different albums. Each is lovely, from the 1961 duet with John Coltrane, to the unadorned version on 1965’s Solo Monk. However, it’s Monk original Blue Note single that set the standard. Underpinned by restrained performances from Art Blakey (drums) and Eugene Ramey (bass), the track beautifully shows the off-kilter elegance of a true original.
The inscrutability of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is frequently cited by both the album’s deepest admirers and its harshest critics. To some listeners, Jeff Mangum’s lyrics are little more than impenetrable babble, cloaked in caterwauling vocals, ramshackle arrangements, and mid-fi production. To others, Mangum’s musings are sacrosanct. If my position on the matter isn’t already clear – this is, after all, the second entry from ITAOTS on this list – it will be as we push deeper into the upper reaches of A Century of Song.
“Two-Headed Boy” represents something of a peak to Mangum’s abstraction. The imagery is decidedly antique – rich in detail, but more a series of snapshots than anything approaching narrative. The titular, glass-bound character shakes to the sounds of accordion keys, constructs a radio out of pulleys and weights, and plays a song for his lover – beautifully described as “in the parlor with a moon across her face.”
The two-headed boy is an enigma – perhaps a conflation of a mind divided between the real world and a world of fantasy. The real world is tragic. In fact, it’s that world’s greatest calamity that provides the backdrop to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Mangum’s imagery seems to suggest the ability of fantasy to provide a balm to the harshness of the outside world. To those who have not yet discovered the solace offered in this album, I can only heartily recommend that you keep trying.
Co-written by Aretha Franklin and her then-husband Ted White, “Think” served as the stirring opener to 1968’s Aretha Now. Appearing in the middle of an impeccable run of albums with Atlantic Records, it helped to solidify Franklin’s position as the Queen of Soul.
Featuring veterans of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, “Think” is a powerful slice of southern soul. The driving beat gives the track a propulsive momentum, and an energy that bridged the gap between Franklin’s gospel background and the emerging sounds of funk music.
Even a band this tight and dynamic would still have to take a back seat to Aretha’s peerless vocal work. She delivers a typically-commanding performance that lends the song a pressing sense of urgency – particularly in the memorable “freedom” bridge.
Can’s 1973 album, Future Days, was the last of a celebrated trio of records that the group made with vocalist Damo Suzuki. Largely dispensing with the thorny impulses that had characterized their previous landmarks – 1971’s Tago Mago and 1972’s Ege bamyasi – Future Days found the group sounding far more relaxed on a set of extended tracks.
The most apt descriptor of Future Days, and its opening title track, is “spacious.” Can’s recent work had been all about tension and experimentation. While “Future Days” retained the band’s forward-thinking approach, it did so while emphasizing atmosphere over complexity, and calm over discomfort.
That atmosphere has been frequently referred to as having an aquatic nature. However, there is a warmth at the oceanic core of “Future Days” – one that makes for a rather singular listening experience. Can may ultimately have more quintessential works, but none that are as inviting as this one.
If you’re looking to identify the closest thing to the definitive arrival of rock and roll, you could do a lot worse than citing Chuck Berry’s first single. While “Maybellene” had roots in the work of Louis Jordan, Jackie Brenston, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, there was something refreshingly original about the song when it first began making waves in 1955.
Much of Chuck Berry’s claim as the “Father of Rock and Roll” can be tied to his outsized personality and flair for the dramatic. In “Maybellene,” Berry found a vehicle for both. The song’s tempo allows for his storytelling to take on a compelling cadence, while the drawn-out syllables of the chorus provide an opportunity for his expressive vocals to take center stage.
Of course, there was another vital element that made “Maybellene” a prototypical rock song. The chugging bounce of the song – adapted from the traditional “Ida Red” – was perfectly suited for Berry’s talents as a guitarist. As strong of a singer and songwriter as he was, it was Berry’s riffs that would prove to be a foundational influence on the generations of rock guitarists that followed.
“Exit Music (For a Film)”
Like countless others, I found myself utterly transfixed by OK Computer when I first heard it in the early fall of 1997. Never before, or since, has a new album so completely changed my perceptions of what music could be – not to mention, remain virtually the only thing I listened to for several weeks on end. As a lifelong music fan, OK Computer remains a point of demarcation – surrounded on either side by my own evolutionary eras of “BC” and “AD.”
In those first few heady listens of the album, I was dumbstruck at virtually every turn. However, there was one moment that, at least initially, managed to stand out from the pack. The first half of “Exit Music” encapsulates the frigid “chill” of Thom Yorke’s lyrics. It’s a scene of desperation: evocative, with a ghostly quality that is only amplified upon the arrival of a Mellotron choir and a bed of found sounds. Then, as Yorke has foretold, “all hell breaks loose.”
OK Computer‘s stunning attention to detail is on full display in the corroded denouement of “Exit Music.” A ramshackle drum fill introduces the most sinister sounding moment in Radiohead’s catalog: fraught with distorted bass, eerily layered guitars, and a return of the cursed, spectral choir. It’s a menacing enough sound that one can be forgiven for missing Yorke’s parting shot – “we hope that you choke.”
“Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)”
One of Miles Davis’ earliest and greatest attempts to redefine the parameters of jazz, 1960’s Sketches of Spain would find him teaming with Gil Evans to create a lushly evocative work that stands as one of the most alluring releases in his discography. Evans – whom Davis had collaborated with on 1957’s Miles Ahead and a 1959 interpretation of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – would lend a stately sophistication to a set of tracks that invoke the dusty expanses of Spain’s Tabernas Desert.
While many contemporary jazz critics were left confounded by Davis’ new direction – far closer to the classical end of the spectrum than the jazz side – Sketches of Spain has grown to become one of his most respected works. Much of its reputation is hinged on the record’s extended opening track – a jazz-meets-classical interpretation of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.”
“Concierto de Aranjuez” is extraordinarily vivid. Davis – who alternates between the flugelhorn and his typical trumpet – plays in remarkable accord with Evans’ twenty-five pice orchestra, while still allowing for his distinctive style to come through in a rather unconventional setting. What could have come off as pretentious or showy sounds like a natural progression for a restlessly creative mind.
“Since I Don’t Have You”
One of the dreamiest tracks of the doo-wop era, The Skyliners’ signature song was a self-penned classic that highlighted the Pittsburgh group’s stellar vocal work, and featured a wonderfully lush orchestral arrangement by Lenny Martin.
There’s a sentimentalism to “Since I Don’t Have You” that is mitigated by the outstanding song craft contained within. Martin’s sweeping strings, the twinkling piano that was a staple of doo-wop, and a charming melody all help in making it a memorable track for all of the right reasons.
The true show-stopping moment of “Since I Don’t Have You” comes in the song’s final verse. Lead singer Jimmy Beaumont’s voice shoots up into a powerful falsetto, while his bandmates punctuate his plaintive vocals with rich harmonies – note Janet Vogel’s impressive, theremin-like leap in the song’s closing moments. Beaumont’s insistent repetitions of the final “you” lend a deeper pathos to a track that rises far above the typical radio fodder of the day.
“A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'”
While 1991’s De La Soul is Dead largely found the pioneering Long Island group retreating from the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” positivism of their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, the album’s lead single was a classic, upbeat anthem. “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” combined De La Soul’s sample-heavy production with a carefree vibe and sharp lyricism to create one of the most appealing hip-hop singles of its time.
There’s a density to “Saturdays” that belies the track’s nostalgic, sing-along nature. De La Soul packed the track with guest appearances from their Native Tongues associates. It’s A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip who appears on the song’s opening verse, and the chorus features Vinia Mojica delivering a beckoning hook.
“Saturdays” harkens back to the celebratory, party jams of an earlier time – a time before cynicism had become the prevailing mentality of hip-hop music. The track offered a light-hearted alternative to the harder-edged sounds that would come to dominate the genre in the ensuing decade – one that still sounds refreshing nearly three decades later.
*De La Soul’s music remains unavailable on Spotify, so I will substitute a ‘Century of Song’ “near miss” from one of their many followers.*
Van Morrison only spent a brief time with the Belfast band Them before setting out on a solo career, but the group’s legacy would be secured on the strength of the B-side to their second single. While it wasn’t a massive hit upon release, “Gloria” would become a staple of garage rock bands on both sides of the Atlantic.
Morrison wrote “Gloria” at the age of eighteen, and while its rudimentary nature would make it an easy target for countless covers, the intensity of Morrison’s vocal performance would prove difficult to match. A rollicking update on the blues, the song’s primal energy would endear it to novice guitarists everywhere, who found a simply effective nature to its signature three-chord riff.
Of course, Morrison would move on to more cosmic material during his solo career, but the immediacy of his first great song manages to live on in a surprisingly durable fashion. There is, perhaps, only one song that stands more central to the history of garage rock…
Few songs loom larger in the legacy of rock and roll music than the debut single by The Kingsmen. Recorded for $50 – a cost split by the group’s five members – in a small studio in the band’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, “Louie Louie” would become the “shot heard round the world” for countless American garage rock bands.
The Kingsmen were not even the first Pacific Northwest group to record a version of Richard Berry’s relatively obscure 1957 single. That task fell to Tacoma’s The Wailers, who recorded their own take with vocalist Robin Roberts in 1960. In a moment fitting of the song’s eventual status as the “great democratizer” in rock and roll, The Wailers released the track in 1961 on their own tiny label, Etiquette, and scored a minor regional hit.
The Kingsmen’s version ups the song’s raucous ante to a considerable degree. Don Gallucci’s soon-to-be-iconic organ riff introduces the track, and a shambolic rhythm carries the song to proto-punk Valhalla. Through its franticly skittering guitar solo, Jack Ely’s slurred vocals – which set the F.B.I. on notice – and the infamous mistake that leads into the song’s final verse, “Louie Louie” is sloppy, rickety, and completely irresistible.
We’ll never know exactly how many American teenagers first picked up a Stratocaster or switched on a Farfisa organ with designs of playing “Louie Louie.” There were at least thousands, maybe far more. What made it so tempting was that the ten-note riff seemed so tantalizingly possible.