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.
Van Morrison left the Belfast-based garage rock group Them in 1966, promptly setting off on a solo career that yielded almost-immediate dividends with the 1967 hit, “Brown Eyed Girl” (#477). Hastily recorded in what would become a one-off deal with Bang Records, Morrison’s debut LP Blowin’ Your Mind! came off as a tentative start – one that its creator would be quick to disown.
Hearing the pastoral beauty of his follow-up album – 1968’s Astral Weeks – one can’t help but see why Morrison was left cold by such an undistinguished debut. Few entries in the rock canon are so effortlessly enveloping as Astral Weeks: eight majestically autumnal pieces, arranged into an enthralling song cycle; considered-but-improvisational, as if guided by some sort of divine inspiration.
If all of this sounds likes gushing, well, it is. Precious few songs are able to attain such a balanced sense of being as to be considered perfect. That Morrison and his backing band of jazz-trained musicians are able to sustain that level over the course of the album’s forty-seven minutes is little short of miraculous. However, for all of its great moments, Astral Weeks hits its peak on the stunning centerpiece, “Sweet Thing.”
While the majority of Astral Weeks matches Morrison’s impressionistic poetry to windingly open-ended instrumental backing, “Sweet Thing” applies the record’s wholly unique sound to a more conventional structure. Morrison’s repeated lyrical refrains act as a chorus, and help to set the bucolic scenes – “We shall walk and talk in gardens all misty and wet with rain” – that dominate the album.
The most stirring musical element of the song comes with the lush orchestration – which Morrison reportedly disliked. The cascading string motif of the song’s second half serves as Astral Weeks‘ most indelible musical hook – a tangible takeaway from an album of virtually-unparalleled musical beauty.
“Take the “A” Train”
“Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”
– Duke Ellingon
The directions were simple, but for a kid visiting New York for the first time, there was something particularly memorable – and perhaps poetic – about their first step: “Take the A Train.” As he boarded the recently-opened subway line from Manhattan to Harlem, twenty-three-year-old Billy Strayhorn had no idea that he was about to enter into a remarkable creative partnership that would span the remaining twenty-eight years of his life.
Strayhorn had been introduced to Duke Ellington before, in Strayhorn’s hometown of Pittsburgh. On a snowy evening the previous December, Strayhorn had managed a meeting with the already-legendary pianist/composer/bandleader. Within minutes of meeting – and offering sharp “rearrangement” ideas for a handful of Ellington’s most time-tested songs – Duke was sold on Strayhorn’s talents. He offered Strayhorn twenty dollars for his arrangement of “Two Sleepy People,” and told him that he would send for him the following spring.
As well as their initial meeting had gone, Strayhorn had to have been nervous as he arrived in Harlem. He was on Duke’s home turf now, and even though he had already been promised a job in Ellington’s organization, he was still a relative-unknown working for one of the most famous orchestras in America.
Among the first pieces that Strayhorn would present to his new boss, “Take the “A” Train” was a particularly expressive piece. While conceived as an homage to the arrangements of Fletcher Henderson, the track undoubtedly tapped into the contemporary swing sounds that had come to dominate the airwaves. By the time of its initial 1941 recording, “Take the “A” Train” had already become known as the signature song by Ellington’s band.
Like many great partnerships, the public perception of the Ellington/Strayhorn team attributed most of the credit to the former. Granted, Ellington had already been established as a giant by the time that Strayhorn came to prominence, but the public accolades for Duke – and his general willingness to accept them for himself – kept the protege largely in the master’s shadow, despite the vital role that Strayhorn would play in keeping Ellington’s music relevant. In time, Ellington would come to acknowledge the transformative impact that Strayhorn had on his career, most poignantly with the album …And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded shortly after his apprentice’s death in 1967.
“Find the River”
One of the most elusive treasures for an avid enjoyer of any art form is to experience it in idealized circumstances. The portability of recorded music allows for a virtually infinite combination of sound, space, and mood, and yet, only in the rarest of instances do they ever cohere into what could perhaps be called a “perfect listen.” Not to say that there aren’t plenty of great opportunities to intentionally mix sound and space, but the best listens tend to be those that are unplanned.
The most eternally preserved listen of my lifetime to date happened toward the end of the summer of 1993. I was riding shotgun in my brother’s car, as we followed my parents’ Suburban, en route to Flagstaff, Arizona. We were moving for the seventh time in fourteen months, and I was roughly two weeks away from starting high school. To say that my brother – seventeen at the time – or I were unenthusiastic about this move would have been a severe understatement.
Automatic for the People wasn’t exactly a new record at that point, but it – along with most of R.E.M.’s back catalog – had been on near-constant rotation throughout that summer. As we hit the second half of the northbound stretch of I-17, it just happened to be the next CD to come up in my brother’s trunk-mounted changer.
I’ve already covered the other tracks that make up Automatic‘s impeccable closing trio: “Man on the Moon” (#325) and “Nightswimming” (#132). As those two songs played, the late-afternoon monsoon storm turned to a light drizzle, but the remaining clouds in the distance created a sense of early nightfall. “Find the River,” in all of its stately, melodic grandeur, soundtracked the last few minutes before we hit the city limits of our new town.
Michael Stipe’s lyrics were not lost on me in that moment. Over twenty-five years later, they still seem eerily prescient:
Hey now, little speedyhead
The read on the speedmeter says
You have to go to task in the city
Where people drown and people serve
Don’t be shy, your just deserve
Is only just light years to go
Me, my thoughts are flower strewn
Ocean storm, bayberry moon
I have got to leave to find my way
Watch the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
And nothing is going my way
Even more so were the final lines:
Pick up here and chase the ride
The river empties to the tide
All of this is coming your way
Even at fourteen – after a year of upheaval – I had a sense that my life was entering a new chapter. While the disruptive nature of teendom and young adulthood were a part of the “all of this” coming my way, there was one thing that became more settled in that moment: Flagstaff would be my home for the next nineteen years. I’ve never heard this song since without thinking of that drive, and coming to learn that when one storm ends, another is always on the horizon. And that’s just life. All you can do is hold on, and hope for a decent soundtrack.
“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)”
In 1959, Pete Seeger adapted a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, turning it into one of the most indelible songs in his catalog. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that the Los Angeles folk rock quintet The Byrds would make “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” a standard, and one of the most iconic tracks of the sixties.
Having already proven the chart potential for socially-conscious jangle rock with their hit cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” (#247), The Byrds made “Turn! Turn! Turn!” the first single and title-track to their second album. The song would prove to be perfectly fitted to its moment in time, with the Seeger-added closing plea for peace arriving on the heels of America’s rapidly escalating ground war in Vietnam.
While not as overt as Barry McGuire’s recent #1 hit “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!”‘s stint at the top of the pop charts signaled a sea change in the minds of the American record-buying public. It didn’t hurt that – in the place of McGuire’s gruff vocals or Dylan’s somewhat-divisive drawl – the song was delivered with The Byrds’ impeccable ear for harmony.
All of this is great, but for me, it’s Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker work that makes “Turn! Turn! Turn!” an all-timer. A beautifully chiming presence throughout, it’s in the song’s instrumental break that The Byrds’ signature sound reaches its glorious apex. Mimicking the same line as the vocals – and retaining the increased dynamic heft of each verse’s second half – McGuinn’s guitar sound captures the musical quintessence of the mid-sixties, in all of its tumult, boundless creativity, and melodicism.
I can vaguely remember a time in which John Lennon’s signature post-Beatles song was not an immediate flashpoint for argument. A time in which its haunting piano introduction was not a trigger for vitriol. Perhaps that was merely the naiveté of youth, or a sheltering afforded by a world in which our dialogue on such things still occurred face-to-face, in a circle of those with which we tend to agree.
But perhaps it wasn’t. The world is undoubtedly a more polarized place than it was during my teenaged years of the nineties. Vitriol is a given. So too are the blind spots that we all hold. While conservatives decry “cancel culture” when it comes to those who they fear are silenced first-and-foremost because of their right-wing viewpoints, they’re equally quick to point out every character flaw – legitimate and illegitimate – of a leftist icon such as Lennon.
The fact of the matter is that John Lennon – like all of us – was an incredibly complex individual. While his talents were extraordinary and his charisma undeniable, he was deeply flawed: particularly as a husband and father. However, if nothing else, he possessed a rare degree of self-reflection for someone of his level of notoriety, and was surprisingly candid about his childhood trauma, his transgressions, and his desire to become a better person. The tragic nature of his early death ensured that desire would be left as a work-in-progress.
Why is all of this a preamble to a discussion on “Imagine”? Well, because of its significance in Lennon’s catalog, and the song’s messaging, it has become the focal point in the battle over the meaning of his life’s work. While any number of songs from his early solo career could inspire ample conversation over Lennon’s somewhat-naive political and social messages – “Give Peace a Chance,” “Power to the People,” “Working Class Hero,” “God,” “Gimme Some Truth” – “Imagine” is The Big One: the indelible hit in which detractors feel that Lennon’s hypocrisy is best laid on display.
I won’t defer to any of the right-wing blowhards who have decried Lennon’s lyrics as “communistic,” but I will point out that even a literate, Lennon-admiring Elvis Costello once observed, “Was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions’?” Sure, interesting point. While there are myriad reasons as to why a man of Lennon’s stature could have seen value in questioning the distribution of wealth, it’s also worth pointing out that Lennon is not exactly saying, “hey, let’s do this,” and instead, quite literally asking to imagine what such a world might look like. What did he mean? Who knows? After all, this is the same person who once wrote, “But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out,” before audibly adding the word “in” less than a second later (#397).
The thing is, we all tend to add our own depth and meaning into any number of songs, regardless of whether or not they sync up with the artist’s intentions. For example, Lennon’s own history of homophobia makes it highly unlikely that “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (#278) was actually intended as a showing of support for The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, but I love to consider the possibility that it might have been.
And perhaps, therein lies the true message of “Imagine.” Aside from its specifics, it is simply asking us to imagine the possibility of a better world, through one couple’s – John credited Yoko Ono for much of the song’s inspiration and content – idea of what that might look like. As a non-believer, I don’t find much to relate to in a song like Washington Phillips’ sublime “Lift Him Up That’s All” (#271), but I can appreciate the sincerity and passion in which it is delivered, and acknowledge that a beautiful song like that helps to make the world closer to what I imagine it could be.
The central lyrical conceit of Joni Mitchell’s greatest composition is one of the most beautiful, solemn – and perfectly Canadian – sentiments ever captured in song:
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
In a song that leans on typically-heartwarming holiday-related imagery – and cleverly repurposes a melody from “Jingle Bells” – Mitchell’s pronouncement comes across as particularly devastating. The fact that it stands out even amongst the other tracks on her 1971 masterpiece, Blue, is a testament to its graceful and deeply affecting manner.
The wide emotional range of Blue is often overlooked in short-hand discussions of the album’s influence on later singer-songwriters, but while it’s far more than just an emotionally-draining break-up album, “River” stands as the most central track to that part of Blue‘s reputation. Despite this, “River” finds Mitchell tempering her disillusionment over lost love with an air of hopefulness.
That nuance is what helped to set Joni Mitchell apart from her peers in the early-seventies. Coupled with the unmistakable sound of her stirring vocal work, one could make the case that she was the most compelling artist on the loosely-knit singer-songwriter scene: more so than even her fellow countrymen, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen; and perhaps even Bob Dylan, who seemed perfectly content with receding into the background at that moment.
Of course, like those giants, Mitchell’s muse saw her continually searching for new ways to express herself. She may have never found her river, but Blue was merely one of the earliest salvos in a decade of remarkable albums that would find Mitchell constantly reinventing her use of music and language to articulate the most human of emotions.
“Reach Out I’ll Be There”
Thirteen years into their career together, Detroit’s Four Tops hit their pinnacle on this brilliant 1966 single. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” would ultimately top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic that fall, and today it stands as one of the finest recordings to ever emerge from the venerable Motown label.
The Tops had plied their trade for over a decade before landing with Motown in 1964, after a number of unsuccessful stints on other labels. The Detroit imprint paired the group with their Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, and struck immediate dividends with their debut Motown release, “Baby I Need Your Loving” (#118). After a run of similarly successful singles and a quickly recorded trio of LPs, the Tops were legitimate stars, and a bankable commodity for Berry Gordy’s label.
By 1966, Holland-Dozier-Holland were looking for a different sound for their premier male act. “Reach Out” would be the result of a considered effort to add an increasing sense of urgency to the group’s signature sound – particularly the lead vocals of Levi Stubbs. Pushed to the top of his range, and practically to the point of shouting, the track was raw, stirring, and utterly unforgettable upon first listen.
The heightened sense of drama of “Reach Out” was also the product of another powerhouse performance from Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers. Augmented by a breathtaking symphonic arrangement, the song matches Stubbs’ sense of desperation with an equally thrilling musical backing unlike anything else yet to emerge on pop radio.
Even the Four Tops themselves were somewhat taken aback by the power of their new song, reportedly pleading with Gordy to not release it after hearing the finished product. Naturally, Gordy disagreed, releasing “Reach Out” as a single in August 1966, and as the centerpiece and title track to the group’s fourth album the following summer.
There is no song more important to the development of electronic music as an art form than the title-track to Kraftwerk’s classic 1974 LP. A side-long epic with little precedent, “Autobahn” was a transatlantic hit that opened the door to a new world of musical possibilities.
Utilizing an array of state-of-the-art synthesizers – plus a handful of traditional embellishments – Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider rebuilt Kraftwerk’s sound from the ground up with “Autobahn.” The track’s pulsating rhythm, rich ambience, and melodic appeal coalesced into something wholly original upon its release.
Though initially greeted as something of a novelty, “Autobahn” would soon become a signpost of things to come in the pop world. While its twenty-two-minute album version showed the true expansiveness of Kraftwerk’s unique sound, the song’s three-and-a-half-minute single edit helped to prove the commercial viability of electronic music, landing in the top forty in several countries.
Undoubtedly, it was “Autobahn”‘s memorable lyrical hook that helped to make it a hit. While English-speaking listeners were often quick to mishear the lyrics as an homage to The Beach Boys’ 1964 track “Fun, Fun, Fun” – actually “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn,” meaning “We drive, drive, drive on the highway” – the track did actually tap into the same “thrill of the open road” trope that was such a central part of the rock music tradition.
It was that mix of playfulness and melodicism that took me by surprise upon listening to “Autobahn” for the first time. Kraftwerk were one of those groups whose legend preceded them, well before I ever heard their music. Knowing of their image and influence, I was expecting something cold and distant. What I got instead was a warmly inviting work, one that – despite its unconventionality – felt remarkably, welcomingly human.
I’ve written elsewhere about the disorienting nature of hearing Radiohead’s Kid A for the first time in the fall of 2000 (#110, #861). Nowhere on that groundbreaking album was there a more clear delineation between the band’s past and future than on the spellbinding, doomsday strains of “Idiotheque.”
Built around a brief sample from Paul Lansky’s 1973 piece “Mild und Leise,” “Idiotheque” was Radiohead’s most brazen embrace of dance/electronic influences to date. While rock-minded contemporaries such as Stereolab had already dove head-first into this form of musical construction, there was something unusually striking about Radiohead’s bold new direction.
Perhaps it was the starkness of “Idiotheque,” which leapt from the icy peaks of Kid A with a particularly sharp sense of foreboding and an uncharacteristic clarity. Perhaps it was the convincing nature of Thom Yorke’s apocalyptic missive: a hurried phone call from a knowing and not-too-distant future. Regardless, there was an undeniable intensity to the piece, unlike anything the group had ever done before.
While disorienting upon its arrival, “Idiotheque” would only come to sound more prophetic in time. Within a year of its release, new remnants of the dystopian future that it seemed to predict were bearing down from every angle. A couple of years later, politicians and pundits would brandish the phrase “shock and awe,” as if it were a thing to celebrate. Radiohead just arrived at the dance first.
Of course, The Clash were no strangers to doomsday predictions in pop music, as their reciprocal admiration for the Jamaican group Culture – whose 1977 track “Two Sevens Clash” (#966) was seen by some as a sly reference to the London band – demonstrated. Even still, the opening song and title-track to the band’s 1979 masterpiece, London Calling, was a particularly enthralling blast of British punk.
Just as Radiohead would do twenty-one years later with “Idiotheque,” Joe Strummer warns that the “ice age is coming.” Set against a backdrop of ominous imagery – warfare, police violence, floods, nuclear accidents, and famine – “London Calling” matches its lyrical intensity with a musical insistence that no other band of The Clash’s era could ever dream of matching.
For a group that had already established itself as the beating, bleeding heart of British punk rock, “London Calling” was a worrisome sign: an indicator that the power of music could no longer hold back the tide of looming calamity. For listeners of the double-LP that followed that opening track, the song’s message would be tempered – and its impact softened somewhat – by eighteen more tracks of stunning variety. Listening to the song in a stand-alone manner still leaves one with an unsettling feeling.
London Calling – the album – was a tour de force from a group that, in time, would famously be dubbed “The Only Band That Matters.” While the cynic in me is quick to point out that this was merely a marketing strategy by a label that had already put the band through the wringer, the vital, raw, and urgent power of “London Calling” stands as the most compelling evidence that The Clash were truly peerless.