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.
“How to Disappear Completely”
I’ve written elsewhere about Radiohead’s Kid A being the most highly-anticipated album release of my lifetime, and while I was quick to see it as a worthy follow-up to OK Computer, part of what made it so was its disorienting nature. Just as OK Computer had led me to a paradigm shift in musical tastes, so too would Kid A, but even in those initial listens, there was one track that was immediately resonant.
Unlike the rest of Kid A, “How to Disappear Completely” was striking in its embrace of convention. The acoustic strums that open the track were arguably the album’s first organic-sounding element, following the vocoders, blips, and warped jazz of the preceding tracks. Those songs all had heart – a vital component that would be revealed upon repeat listens – but it was on “How to Disappear Completely” that Thom Yorke first sounded human.
While the other tracks on Kid A would grow warmer upon familiarity, “How to Disappear Completely” would become colder and more distant as I – and millions of others – listened to the album obsessively over the fall and winter of 2000-01. The song’s themes of paranoia and alienation were driven home by Jonny Greenwood’s frigid string arrangement and his deft use of the theremin-like sounds of the Ondes Martenot.
Twenty years later, the initial disorientation of Kid A may have worn off, but it remains a truly singular listening experience. There may be other tracks that better reflect the turn-of-the-millennium musical shifts that it was part of, but “How to Disappear Completely” remains the album’s chilling emotional centerpiece.
“Love in Vain Blues”
No figure looms larger in the history of blues music than Robert Johnson. While the Mississippi-born guitarist was far from the first practitioner of the Delta Blues styling, the twenty-nine recordings that he made from 1936-37 brim with a hauntingly intimate quality that sounds like little else from their time.
Johnson’s masterpiece, “Love in Vain Blues” was issued by Vocalion as the B-side to his final single, “Preachin’ Blues.” Similarly, over thirty years later, Columbia would release it as the closing track for the 1970 compilation, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II. Whether by coincidence or by mutual acknowledgement of the song’s eerie sense of finality, it stands as a fitting last statement by a legendary figure.
Johnson had sung convincingly of being haunted by the supernatural on tracks like “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail” (#392), but his concerns are far more terrestrial on “Love in Vain.” Standing at a railroad station, watching the object of his unrequited love pull away, Johnson’s pain is palpable in his gripping vocal performance.
By the time “Love in Vain” was released in February 1939, Johnson had already been dead for six months. Found alone on the side of a road – at the age of twenty-seven – the mysterious circumstances of his death would only enhance his legend. As if the music that he left behind wasn’t already enough.
“‘Til I Die”
Following the collapse of the legendary Smile project, Brian Wilson became increasingly consumed by a dangerous combination of drug abuse, self-doubt, and undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder. Surrounded by hangers-on, increasingly isolated from his family and bandmates, and facing waning cultural relevance, Wilson retreated from his role as The Beach Boys’ leader.
Contrary to popular belief, Wilson didn’t become a total recluse – at least not by the early seventies. In fact, he remained a vital contributor to The Beach Boys’ underrated post-Smile albums. Though these tracks may have lacked the intricate composition and detail of his Pet Sounds-era work, they showed that Wilson’s sense of melody and arrangement remained intact.
While these years found Wilson getting great mileage out of unused material from the Smile sessions, his best new song of the era was the penultimate track to 1971’s Surf’s Up. Paired with the environmental doom of the dirge-like “A Day in the Life of a Tree,” and the stunning lyrical imagery and melodic leap of the album’s title track, “‘Til I Die” formed the haunting centerpiece to a remarkable trilogy.
Like so much of Wilson’s most beloved work, “‘Til I Die” found its inspiration in the vast Pacific Ocean. However, in contrast to the “fun in the sun” themes of his earliest songs, “‘Til I Die” is a stark meditation on mortality, and the comparatively minuscule nature of the human condition. Somewhere between a cathartic release and a cry for help, it is a painstakingly beautiful expression of grief, anxiety, and acceptance from pop music’s greatest genius.
“Radio Free Europe”
Throughout the history of popular music, there are a surprising number of bands and artists who peaked with their very first single. While I won’t quite argue that as the case for R.E.M. – after all, what would my top 100 be without an appearance from my favorite band – the Athens, Georgia group rarely matched the brilliance of the first song that they ever released.
Though it would reappear on their full-length debut – 1983’s classic Murmur – “Radio Free Europe” was originally issued as the A-side to R.E.M.’s lone release on the short-lived Hib-Tone label. A great deal sprightlier than the eventual album version, the Hib-Tone single establishes a clearer connection to the post-punk element of the diverse influences that made up R.E.M.’s unique sound.
The energy, spirit, and tunefulness of “Radio Free Europe” – not to mention the soon-to-be calling card that was Michael Stipe’s cryptic lyrics – gave the group a decided edge over their American indie rock contemporaries. When coupled with the “out of time, out of place” nature of their origins, it was no surprise that R.E.M. would quickly become the most talked-about underground band in the U.S.
The sense of mystery that stands at the core of “Radio Free Europe” rarely eluded the group during their thirty-year run. The alternative rock scene that grew up in the band’s shadow would be at its best when it combined R.E.M.’s well-honed balance of accessibility and abstraction. Rarely would it equal the power that seemed to spring so effortlessly from this group of scruffy southern outcasts.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
My age group didn’t have an Ed Sullivan moment. Media fragmentation ultimately threw us Gen-X/Millennial “tweeners” into our own little corners of the cultural landscape. Sure, there were some pop cultural touchstones that resonated across the lines of clique and scene, but nothing that felt unifying enough to be truly considered a shared experience. As such, our little groups each got to define their own “moment.”
Mine came in October 1991, at the age of twelve. I can definitively remember sitting on my older brother’s weight bench – a curious and short-lived relic of our shared bedroom – when this song came on the radio. We had been glued to the local rock station for what seemed like weeks, in anticipation of the imminent first single from U2’s Achtung Baby. While “The Fly” would leave an impression of its own once we finally heard it, it had nothing on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Just as revelatory was my eventual first viewing of the song’s instantly iconic video. While R.E.M. and the aforementioned-U2 had already shown me a world beyond hair bands, there was something decidedly attainable about Nirvana’s sound and image. Specifically, I remember thinking that Kurt Cobain’s shirt looked like something that my mom could have conceivably bought for me at Mervyn’s.
At the time, I was in seventh grade at a school that I hated. Two years – and two big family moves – later, I was a new kid at a school that I hated slightly less. It was there that I first met other kids who similarly saw this song – and all that followed in its wake – as a moment of cultural awakening. Eventually, I’d skip class to talk about music with those kids. We’d scribble band logos inside of rarely opened textbooks. We bought guitars, wrote our own songs, and formed our own bands. We did these things in the face of ridicule from some peers, and indifference from the rest. Why? “Smells Like Teen Spirit” showed us an endpoint that we’d never reach ourselves, but it made it feel so much more possible that we might.
“The End of the World”
It’s tempting to call Skeeter Davis’ signature song “melodramatic.” Every element of “The End of the World” seems designed for maximum impact: the mournful melody, crestfallen lyrics, and piercing pedal steel guitar work of Pete Drake. If the song was so calculated, how could it not fall victim to its own melancholy? As the saying goes, “it’s the singer, not the song.”
Mary Frances “Skeeter” Penick was born in Dry Ridge, Kentucky at the peak of the Great Depression. As a young child, her great-uncle murdered her maternal grandfather, sending young “Skeeter”‘s mother into a depressive spiral. By the time she was in high school, Skeeter had thwarted multiple suicide attempts by her mother.
It was in high school that she found a sense of salvation in music. Forming a singing duo with her best friend, Betty Jack Davis, Skeeter – who had now taken her friend’s surname for her own stage name – would find a path away from an abusive home. In 1953, Betty Jack and Skeeter – now known professionally as The Davis Sisters – would land a hit with the song, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Just weeks after the single hit number one on the country charts, Betty Jack was killed in a car accident in which Skeeter was also a passenger.
By 1962, Skeeter had escaped a loveless marriage and entered into an emotionally abusive one. It was late that year that she recorded “The End of the World.” While her vocal range may not have matched that of some of her contemporaries, there was an undeniable emotional quality, one might say a deep sorrow, that permeated through the recording. It was a quality that couldn’t be taught, just gained through lived experience.
“Station to Station”
In the mid-seventies, David Bowie’s life was falling apart. Living in Los Angeles, estranged from his family, and subsisting on a diet of red peppers, milk, and cocaine, Bowie had hit a personal low. Artistically, he was unstoppable. In the fall of 1975, he went to work on Station to Station: a transitional record of the highest caliber. He would later claim to have no memory of recording it.
Dominating over the album’s seemingly slight track listing, the opening masterpiece was like nothing else in Bowie’s catalog, before or after. Tapping into the burgeoning European electronic music scene, “Station to Station” established a decidedly sinister and mechanical sound in its extended opening section.
It’s three minutes into the song before Bowie’s vocals enter. Immediately introducing his new stage persona – the Thin White Duke – Bowie lays out a cryptic set of lyrics that displayed his growing fascination with occultist imagery. Halfway through, the bottom falls out of the stilted rhythm, and Bowie’s band kicks into a twisted take on futuristic funk.
It’s in this final section of “Station to Station” that Bowie drops the most winkingly self-referential lines of his career:
It’s not the side effects of the cocaine
I’m thinking that it must be love
It’s too late to be grateful, it’s too late to be late again
It’s too late to be hateful
The European canon is here
As the mutant sounds behind him swell and recede, a man of intense contradiction – in a rare moment of reflection and vulnerability – crafted what may be the most and least human music of his storied career.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”
How many songs must a young man write before he is considered a master? The answer – at least in Bob Dylan’s case – is apparently, “not that many.” While Dylan’s self-titled 1962 debut was a worthy collection of songs that he had learned on the Greenwich Village folk scene, its follow-up, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was nothing short of a revelation when it arrived in the spring of 1963.
As the album’s opening track and first single, “Blowin’ in the Wind” represented, for many, their introduction to this preternatural songwriting talent who had turned twenty-two just days before Freewheelin’‘s release. While the wisdom imbued in the song would have been impressive for a man twice his age, it was Dylan’s knack for matching impact with economy – not always his strong point – that made “Blowin’ in the Wind” so resonant.
While Dylan’s single earned a more-than-respectable level of recognition for a folk song, it was the quickly released cover by Peter, Paul and Mary that truly embedded “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the public consciousness. Their single would become one of 1963’s biggest hits, landing at #2 on the pop charts, and selling over a million copies within months of its release.
Whether delivered in his own voice, or in that of a more commercialized sheen, Dylan’s words clearly struck a nerve. How could a small-town Minnesota kid, barely past the legal drinking age, say what so many others were thinking, but couldn’t themselves articulate? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
Beginning with 1972’s Music of My Mind, Stevie Wonder embarked on a dizzying five-year span of unparalleled creative activity. Over the course of five albums, Wonder displayed a rare combination of artistic mastery and commercial appeal, becoming one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. While those records contained a seemingly-endless well of high points, “Superstition” – from 1972’s Talking Book – has earned a particularly special distinction in Wonder’s catalog.
Though he had dabbled in funk sounds before, “Superstition” represented Wonder’s most overt embrace of the styling to date. The song’s stutter-stop beat, and signature clavinet riff provided two indelible hooks that made its chart success a foregone conclusion.
Just as compelling was Wonder’s vocal delivery and lyrical message. In an era where absurd conspiracy theories have led to serious real-world consequences, the song’s tagline feels particularly prescient:
When you believe in things
That you don’t understand
Then you suffer
Superstition ain’t the way
The many virtues of “Superstition” launched the track to the top of the American pop charts – giving Stevie Wonder his first number one single in nearly a decade. While Talking Book was merely a precursor to even better records to come, “Superstition” would remain the most extraordinary track from Wonder’s most productive era.
“She Loves You”
The Beatles were already stars in their native Britain by the time that “She Loves You” was released in August of 1963. However, the song – which would ultimately become their biggest-selling single in the UK – is what truly launched the Beatlemania phenomenon that would soon carry the group to international fame.
Much has been made about the fact that – despite its deceptively simple exterior – “She Loves You” is a surprisingly sophisticated composition. From its unique chord changes to the intermediary nature of its lyrical conceit, there was little that sounded like the song upon its arrival, and a whole lot that would try to mimic it afterward.
Those innovations – noteworthy as they may be – are simply meaningless in comparison to the inescapable hooks and boundless energy of “She Loves You.” Leading off with the chorus – another largely-unprecedented move – the song barrels along, from one charming feature to the next: the “yeah, yeah, yeah” tag, George Harrison’s mimicking descending guitar figure, and the falsetto “woooooooo”s that drive it home.
Hindsight makes it easy to go back and retroactively ascribe genius to that which was merely dismissed as “fad” upon arrival. While no one could have predicted what The Beatles were soon to become, anyone who listened with a critical ear in 1963 could hear that this group was something special.