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.
“(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go”
While many of his later tracks with The Impressions – such as the 1969 single, “Choice of Colors”/”Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey)” – tackled heavy subject matter, they ultimately sound like half-steps en route to Curtis Mayfield’s true artistic breakthrough. In 1970, Mayfield set out on his own to record an album that would attempt to tap into a harder-hitting sound and further define his singular creative vision. Released in September of that year, Curtis was a career-redefining masterstroke that reflected the continued pain, persistence, and urgency of a fractured Civil Rights movement – one that Middle America preferred to believe, with little to no evidence, had achieved its goals in the preceding decade.
Curtis leads off with “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” – one of the most stunning album openers in pop music’s history. A scathing indictment of Nixon’s America, and the do-nothing mentality that perpetuated a perversely unjust status quo, the track’s apocalyptic tone is immediately established by a vicious fuzz bass, a spoken monologue about the Book of Revelation, and Mayfield’s attention-grabbing roll call of the intended recipients of the titular message.
It’s worth noting that the concerns expressed by Mayfield on “Don’t Worry” are as much about economics as they are about race. By addressing an inclusive audience with his opening proclamation and subsequent pleas, Mayfield alludes to a common systemic oppression of the poor, regardless of race. It’s an oppression that manifested in mass incarceration, crumbling urban infrastructure, and – at that particular moment in time – getting shipped off to the front lines in Vietnam.
Where other artists warned of the possibility of fire, Mayfield implored his audience to prepare for the inevitability of the inferno – while seemingly suggesting that they dance on the way there. As grim as the lyrics are, “Don’t Worry” seethes with the power of its heavy funk rhythms, which are deftly juxtaposed with the liltingly lush orchestration. These elements served as both the culmination of Mayfield’s progression along the production learning curve while with The Impressions, and as evidence of everything that he had to gain by going solo.
“The Kids Are Alright”
As I enter the home stretch of this project, I find myself having to make choices between historical importance and personal preference. In this particular case, the former wins out. While The Who have one more track remaining on this list, “The Kids Are Alright” is unquestionably my favorite song by the band, even if it’s not necessarily the best.
Time and time again, I have argued that The Who’s early singles may be the platonic ideal of rock and roll music. No other group better balanced the genre’s predilection for danger with melodic sensibility. While that sense of danger tended to separate The Who from the British Invasion pack – and defined their most iconic recordings – “The Kids Are Alright” is three minutes of glorious pop hooks, with an only-slightly-explosive undercurrent.
The airy vocal harmonies and jangle of Pete Townshend’s glistening Rickenbacker chords do all they can to contain The Who’s most unpredictable element: drummer Keith Moon. Moon’s tom fills threaten to veer off course on several occasions, as if goading Townshend into one of the group’s climactic, crashing crescendos. They come tantalizingly close to cacophony on the instrumental rave-up in the slightly longer single version, but the song’s indelible melody pulls the group back together for one last verse and chorus.
Thematically, “The Kids Are Alright” was one of Townshend’s most cryptic early compositions. Making several allusions to the Mod culture that The Who were often seen as ambassadors for, the track acknowledges the bittersweet nature of the transition from youth to adulthood. Caught partway between abandon and responsibility, “The Kids Are Alright” is a brilliantly wistful song – one of the finest of rock music’s golden era.
“Two, one, two, three, four”
Perhaps the most cathartic opening to any song ever written. Scratch that… Perhaps the most cathartic song ever written. Say nothing of seeing it performed live – which I was lucky enough to have witnessed three times – “Holland, 1945” arrives at a crucial moment in an album that constantly begs for release. It needs to be there, and yet – with the exception of the harrowing “Oh Comely” – it may in fact be the weightiest track on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Witness:
The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone
Here it is, Aeroplane‘s most direct reference to Anne Frank – who died alongside her sister Margot, at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, weeks before it was liberated by British soldiers.
From there, “Holland, 1945” returns back to the abstraction that characterizes most of Aeroplane: flaming pianos, circus wheels, and shooting stars, interspersed with allusions to unspeakable violence in a “world [that] just screams and falls apart.”
But now we must pick up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
At least enough to carry on
These words seem scarcely upbeat on paper, but delivered over the carnivalesque instrumental backing, they become celebratory. Triumphant even. Aeroplane suggests that, from the rubble left behind by hatred, intolerance, and senseless violence, we can find renewal – perhaps through rebuilding, perhaps through reincarnation, or perhaps through getting a glimpse of a better world from a celestial perch.
“Into the Mystic”
Astral Weeks is Van Morrison’s masterpiece, but for a song-length distillation of that album’s pastoral beauty, one can do no better than the centerpiece of 1970’s Moondance. “Into the Mystic” is the finest track in the Belfast-born singer-songwriter’s catalog – the antithesis to whichever of his 2020 “Social Distancing is Tyranny” anthems is the worst.
Born of a desire to match the sprawling nature of Astral Weeks with the more pop-oriented work of his early career, Moondance was as big of a hit with critics as it was with record buyers. Appearing at the end of the album’s virtually perfect first side, “Into the Mystic” is a track worthy of its alluring title.
Built upon a gently drifting instrumental backdrop, the verses of “Into the Mystic” evoke the ethereal quality of the music:
We were born before the wind
Also, younger than the sun
‘Ere the bonnie boat was won
As we sailed into the mystic
Hark now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic
The elegance of the verses give way to a soaring chorus – easily one of Morrison’s finest vocal performances. The instrumental tagline is every bit as graceful, with a mix of saxophones providing an indelible hook.
The one-two punch of Astral Weeks and Moondance were enough to solidify Van Morrison’s reputation, but they merely served as consecutive entries in a remarkable, decades-spanning career. “Van the Man” has undoubtedly earned a place as one of pop music’s most legendary figures, but dude, just wear a fucking mask.
Great creative partnerships – true partnerships – are a thing to treasure. The collaborative spirit, reciprocal give-and-take, built-in competition/support, and – in even rarer cases – brotherhood of a remarkable creative duo is something to behold. Like other greats – Ellington/Strayhorn, Sinatra/Riddle, and Lennon/McCartney – the partnership of André Benjamin and Antwan Patton effectively revolutionized an entire musical genre.
By the time of their fourth album – 2000’s Stankonia – Benjamin (André 3000) and Patton (Big Boi) had already established their duo, OutKast, as the most forward-thinking hip-hop group of its era. Trading in a deeply eclectic range of influences, deftly mixing inventive samples with live instrumentation, and thriving on the mix of their own unique styles and personalities, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), ATLiens (1996), and Aquemini (1998) were a trio of records with little precedent in rap music. Stankonia would be OutKast’s play for a wider audience, but one that refused to sacrifice what had made the group so unique.
The album’s first single, “B.O.B.” was a mindfuck of futuristic funk, delivered at a blazingly fast 155 beats-per-minute. André is first out of the gate, spinning lightning-sharp rhymes over the track’s hyper-charged instrumental backing. While the coolness of Big Boi’s delivery gives his verse a more relaxed feel, it is nearly as dexterous as that of his often-more-nimble counterpart.
Though Stankonia would ultimately debut at #2 on the Billboard charts, most of that commercial success was due to the popularity of the album’s second single, “Ms. Jackson” (#207). Released a month earlier, “B.O.B.” fell well short of even the top fifty of the R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart. Several radio stations had effectively banned the track, presuming that its full title – “Bombs Over Baghdad” – promised “problematic” content.
OutKast would split following the massive commercial success of their 2003 double-LP – essentially two solo records – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and the lackluster finale that was the soundtrack to their 2006 film, Idlewild. Aside from a brief 2014 reunion tour, André 3000 and Big Boi have yet to rekindle the creative spark that crafted one of the best discographies in modern pop music. “B.O.B.” is a thrilling testament to that spark.
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”
Though it was recorded several months before the Great Crash of 1929, Bessie Smith’s signature song would ultimately become one of the defining tracks of Depression-era America. Within weeks of the single’s September 1929 release, the nation was facing a stark new reality – one that couldn’t help but make the song’s message seem oddly prescient.
Written by Jimmie Cox in 1923, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” would be recorded several times before Bessie Smith laid down the definitive version in May 1929. Already a star, Smith’s established commercial draw and commanding vocal performance would have brought the song considerable attention on their own, even if it hadn’t turned out to have such an immediately relatable message as the country spiraled into economic turmoil.
Smith’s vocals are anchored by the piano work of Clarence Williams, and a small brass combo. The melancholy swing of the horns provides the track with a jazzy undercurrent, and a tragicomic nature that helped to make it a perfect anthem for the downtrodden.
While it was a massive hit that capped a decade of incredible work, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” would also foretell tough times ahead for Bessie Smith. Her marriage was falling apart when the track was released, compromised by mutual infidelity, and further complicated by her bisexuality.
Over the next few years, Smith’s recordings would grow increasingly infrequent, and less commercially successful. She would die in a road accident in 1937, at the age of forty-three. At the time of her death, she was widely considered to be the greatest vocalist of her time, and she left behind a remarkable catalog of nuanced, groundbreaking work. This track is her finest.
There are few sounds in the history of rock and roll that are more ominous than Keith Richards’ opening guitar notes to The Rolling Stones’ greatest song. Leading off the 1969 album, Let it Bleed, “Gimme Shelter” is a smoldering wreckage of blues rock from the peak of the London group’s storied career.
It was in 1968 that the Stones finally stopped following in the footsteps of The Beatles, and truly began to develop their own mix of roots-based rock – one that synched perfectly with the already-established bad boy image that sat somewhat-awkwardly among the group’s psychedelic dalliances of the mid-sixties. Explored on tracks such as “Street Fighting Man” (#652) and “Sympathy for the Devil” (#335), “Gimme Shelter” took the group’s sound to an apocalyptic level.
After its haunting opening, “Gimme Shelter” settles into a twin-guitar boogie – both parts provided by Richards, as the recording of the track occurred during the brief time between Brian Jones’ and Mick Taylor’s tenure in the band. Beyond Richards’ lead/rhythm work, perhaps the most notable instrumental piece is the insistent sound of a güiro, provided by Jimmy Miller.
Of course, what truly elevates “Gimme Shelter” to the peak of The Rolling Stones’ discography is the vocals. While Mick Jagger is his typical commanding presence, it was the contributions of backing vocalist Merry Clayton that stole the show. Summoned by Let it Bleed‘s producer, Jack Nitzsche, Clayton turns in a harrowing performance – one that, as urban legend has it, contributed to the pregnant vocalist’s miscarriage after the late-night recording session ended.
The Rolling Stones are titanic figures in the history of rock and roll music – perhaps second only to their Liverpool counterparts in terms of cultural impact. For all their iconic moments on record, none can match the searing power and undeniable intensity of this utterly unforgettable track.
“My Favorite Things”
In the introduction for this project, I specifically singled out John Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece, A Love Supreme, as an album whose suite-like nature would make its individual tracks ineligible for this list. While that left a bit of a question as to which Coltrane piece would ultimately rise to the top, the title track to 1961’s My Favorite Things was a relatively-easy pick.
Adapted from the well-known Rogers and Hammerstein composition from The Sound of Music, “My Favorite Things” found Coltrane working within the modal spirit of his mentor, Miles Davis. In fact, it was Davis who purchased as a gift the soprano saxophone that would provide the unique instrumental signature to what would become one of Trane’s most commercially successful recordings.
Stretched out to a continually-compelling run-time of nearly fourteen minutes, “My Favorite Things” is a showcase for Coltrane’s dexterous playing, and the complementary work of Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano) and Steve Davis (bass). While its instantly-recognizable melody would endear it to casual jazz fans – many of whom flocked to the track’s popular single edit – jazz aficionados found plenty to marvel at in its impressively-winding solo passages.
Coltrane imbues “My Favorite Things” with both an emotional complexity and musicianship that only he – and a scant few other jazz artists – could. While there may be more intellectually challenging and commercially appealing work in his catalog, few tracks better display the awesome range of his incomparable talents than this absolute masterwork.
Famously, this debut single from The Undertones was the favorite song of the legendary British deejay, John Peel – so much in fact that Peel requested that the opening lyrics from the 1978 track be included on his tombstone, prior to his death in 2004. As a tireless ambassador for multiple generations worth of forward-thinking artists, Peel could scarcely have picked a better track for his eulogy.
The Undertones formed in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1974, and came to prominence after leaving the Belfast-based Good Vibrations label for a deal with Sire Records. That deal had been secured almost solely on the strength of “Teenage Kicks” – and Peel’s playing of it on BBC Radio 1 – which Sire would reissue to much wider distribution.
Eschewing the political inclinations of their brethren on the UK punk scene, “Teenage Kicks” was an unabashed celebration of young love. Written by the band’s rhythm guitarist and principal songwriter, John O’Neill, the track is sold by the exuberant vocals of Feargal Sharkey, and the group harmonies of the song’s resplendent chorus. Wrapped in a hooky, taut, and brisk two-and-a-half minutes, “Teenage Kicks” is so brimming with joy that it is virtually impossible to resist.
While it managed to hit a respectable #31 in the fall of 1978, it seems like a massive oversight of the UK record-buying public that “Teenage Kicks” didn’t hold a weeks-long reign at the top of the British pop charts. Nevertheless, the song would ultimately become a timeless anthem from one of the UK’s most exciting musical moments.
“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”
Whereas The Undertones sang lubriciously of wanting to get their “Teenage Kicks” on their own debut single, Arcade Fire took a far more existential approach to young love with their opening salvo. The dramatic lead single and first track from 2004’s Funeral, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” found the Montreal group at their most anxious, anthemic, and affecting.
Amid the crystalline instrumental backdrop of “Neighborhood #1,” Win Butler’s opening lyrics lay out a perilous scene:
And if the snow buries my
And if my parents are crying
Then I’ll dig a tunnel
From my window to yours
Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours
From there, the track progresses into what appears to be a torrid teenage affair: part the high drama of Born to Run; part the awkwardly-fumbling-yet-oddly-beautiful poetry of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Since there’s no one else around
We let our hair grow long and forget all we used to know
Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow
You change all the lead
Sleeping in my head
As the day grows dim
I hear you sing a golden hymn
All the while, the instrumental backing becomes more and more insistent with each and every pass. So too do Butler’s vocals, which move from pleading to frantic as the song hits its crescendo:
Purify the colors, purify my mind
Purify the colors, purify my mind
And spread the ashes of the colors
Over this heart of mine
Despite their solid presence on this list, I’ve grown a bit cynical about Arcade Fire over the years. The group seems somewhat stuck in the perpetual adolescence of Funeral, making each new album less impactful than the previous one. However, no matter how much I may try to deny it, this track never fails to induce goosebumps as it reaches its final, wordless chorus.