Tuesday, 4 August 2009
Top 100 favourite songs of all time [Part 3: The 70s]
Next we move on to the 70s. At 29 songs, this is the decade which most of my top 100 comes from. This surprised me quite a bit when I was compiling the list, but there you go.
Badfinger - In The Meantime/Some Other Time
Tragic British power-pop band Badfinger have many well-known songs that have received a lot of radio play. Not this one. Like other songs on Wish you were here, this is a multi-part song which sounds like it could have been on Abbey road. In the meantime is pretty standard power pop fare, there's this weird psychedelic bit in the middle, and at the 4:20 mark the climactic finale begins where riffage and the "I can remember" refrain collide in 2 of the most glorious minutes of music I have heard. It stills gives me goosebumps after more than 10 listens.
Big Star - The Ballad Of El Goodo
More goosebump-raising power-pop from this cult 70s band from Memphis. This is a delightfully gorgeous Alex Chilton ballad from their overrated debut album, #1 record. Most people cite Thirteen from the same album as the apex of Big Star ballads, but this one has always done it for me a lot more. It has a wonderful Byrds-esque jangle, glorious harmonies, and an unforgettable refrain "And there ain't no one gonna turn me 'round". Indeed.
The Cars - Just What I Needed
So many contemporary bands have based their entire career on the sound that The Cars achieved on their first few albums from the late 70s. This song, with lead vocals by the late Benjamin Orr, shows off these copycats as the poseurs that they are. This song was the perfection of the Cars "formula", if you will. Riffage, a steady back beat, keyboard flourishes for a bit of colour, all topped by a wonderfully melodic vocal performance. The call-and-response chorus is the final ingredient which turns this into a modern pop classic.
The Clash - The Guns of Brixton
I love it when one of the best songs by a band is not sung by the regular lead singer. This song, the undeniable centrepiece of the classic London calling, was both written and sung by bass player Paul Simonon. You can tell that it's the bass player who wrote it as well, because it has an absolutely glorious bass line at its heart. Combine that with a wonderful and menacing vocal and lyric courtesy of Simonon, and we have proof that not only could he match the genius of band mates Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, but he could beat them at their own game.
The Cure - Boys Don't Cry
I was pretty tempted to choose Just like heaven as the definitive Cure song, as I would argue that there are very few pop songs that are as perfectly composed as that one. But there's something about this 1979 single which just edges it out for me. There's certainly a nostalgic element to it as well -- I remember borrowing the Standing on a beach CD from Pete and getting really blown away by it, at a time when discovering music like this was truly exciting. And it has a great video clip as well.
Derek & The Dominos - Layla
This song (and its unplugged version released in 1992) have been played to death on the radio, but it's still a classic oldies station staple that will never grow tired for me. The classic riff sets the scene, the gloriously bluesy chorus keeps the momentum going, and the extended coda (which takes up more than half the song) cements its place on the rock walk of fame.
The Doors - L.A. Woman
The title song from their final album, this is late-period (bluesy) Doors at their very best. Many Jim Morrison detractors are put off by his poetic pretensions, but only the most narrow-minded music listeners would deny that this is a perfectly constructed rock 'n roll song. And if there's a better song to drive along the highway to, with the windows wound down, I have yet to hear it. Mojo risin'.
Nick Drake - Northern Sky
Some have criticised his second album Bryter Layter as being a tad over-produced, a little too much studio polish. Maybe it is a tad, but in fairness it is probably judged that way relative to the subtle folk of its predecessor and the raw acoustic nature of its successor, rather than a criticism of the album itself. Northern sky will always be the definitive Nick Drake song to me, and it provides a glorious climax to this album before the instrumental finale Sunday. Wistful, breezy and evocative -- and the "Would you love me?" part is one of the most beautiful moments in music I have ever heard.
Al Green - Let's Stay Together
I have a sentimental attachment to this song. I first heard it in Pulp fiction, and subsequently bought the soundtrack. When Lorin and I started seeing each other, it became one of our songs. When we got married in 2006, it was the song the band played while we did our bridal dance. It might just be my favourite love song. Quentin Tarantino is the master of soundtracks!
The Jam - Down In The Tube Station At Midnight
It starts with the sound of a train entering the tunnel, before a jerky bass line kicks in, and finally Paul Weller's vocals. He tells a story about a man who is on the way home to his wife, take-away curry in hand, who is violently assaulted by a group of thugs. The delivery of this song perfectly captures the fear that the man must have felt at the time of the attack. It all ends suddenly with the sound of the train leaving the station, before the music comes in for a final curtain call.
Elton John - Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Delightfully over-the-top in the way only mid-70s Elton John could, this is a touching and epic autobiographical story about how lyricist Bernie Taupin saved Elton's life in 1969. It's one of those songs that builds and builds...and then builds some more. The "sugar bear" chorus is one of the true feel-good moments in music.
Led Zeppelin - When The Levee Breaks
The story behind the recording of this song is as interesting as the song itself. John Bonham put his drum kit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, where the song was recorded. Microphones were put at the top of the stairwell, capturing the fantastic booming drum sound as it reverberated up towards the roof. It's one of those classic bits of recording trickery which paid massive dividends. Oh yeah, and the rest of the band play pretty well too.
John Lennon - Jealous Guy
This song perfectly encapsulates the songwriting style of John Lennon, and how it differed from his former band mate Paul McCartney. While McCartney generally wrote in the third person talking about other people and characters, Lennon succeeded best when he wrote introspective gems like this one. Reading like an apology to his wife Yoko Ono, this is at its core a very simple song. That Lennon was able to turn the simple into the sublime was one of his many talents.
Nick Lowe - Rollers Show
I only recently picked up his debut album Jesus of cool, after reading many rave reviews about it. There are many highlights on the album (So it goes is catchy beyond words), but my favourite is this one -- the final track on the album (technically a bonus track, because it wasn't on the original vinyl). It captures the anticipation of going to see a gig -- in this case, the Bay City Rollers. You only need to hear this song once to have that melody forever stuck in your head. Gonna see the Rollers!
Joni Mitchell - River
It starts with the Jingle bells melody on piano, setting up the Christmas theme of the lyrics. This song is the undeniable highlight of her masterful Blue album. It's a story about wanting to escape from whatever situation we have found ourselves in, and surely something almost any listener can relate to. The imagery of the line I wish I had a river I could skate away on, combined with Joni's fragile delivery, elevates this song into my all time favourites.
Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
Picking a favourite Pink Floyd song was not an easy task, but this stuck out for me for several reasons. Firstly, there's that quiet opening riff which is instantly recognisable and makes me happy whenever I hear it. Then there's the minimalism of the rest of the song -- while many other Pink Floyd songs tend to be more about show-off guitar solos and pretentious noodling, this one impresses quite happily with the most simple musical elements. And it has a stunning vocal melody to top it all off.
Iggy Pop - Lust For Life
No other musical moment makes me want to get up and dance like the opening drum beat of this classic Iggy number. I first got into this song through the superb Trainspotting soundtrack. According to my iTunes stats, I have listened to it 22 times since I got my iPod. I think that I can honestly say that I won't ever get tired of this song. They don't write 'em like this anymore.
Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
So many musical memories with this one. There's the infamous video clip of course. There's the scene in Wayne's World where they go off to this song in the car. There's the excitement of listening to it when I first got Queen's greatest hits on CD. There was the great stress relief of my friend Simon and me singing along to it in year 12 information systems while we were working on one of our final year projects. Then we all sung along to it at Sheri & Rob's wedding. Memories are one thing, but they wouldn't be anything if this wasn't one of the greatest songs ever written.
Lou Reed - Perfect Day
Another song I got into through the stupendous Trainspotting soundtrack, this song is used in a wonderfully ironic fashion at a pivotal moment in the movie, when the Ewan McGregor character is high on smack. A wonderfully wistful ballad with an uplifting chorus, I don't think Lou Reed ever topped this song in his earlier recordings with the Velvets or his later solo work.
Rodriguez - Rich Folks Hoax
There's about 5 or 6 tracks on Cold fact which are stone-cold classics, but this one just rises to the top for me. Not as critically revered as his more famous numbers Sugar man and I wonder, this one is inconspicuously tucked away as the penultimate track on one of the greatest albums of all time. Lyrically, it would have fit in well with other "Summer of love" hippie anthems in Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. Musically, it's something you'll be humming after one listen.
The Rolling Stones - Let It Loose
This song encapsulates for me why I find Exile on Main Street such an engaging listen. It's all about the vibe of that album, and this amazing gospel-tinged epic drags me into the depths of the record every time I hear it. It also has arguably Mick Jagger's finest vocal performance. The Stones certainly have many more well known ballads (Wild horses, Angie) but don't overlook this underrated classic.
Bruce Springsteen - Thunder Road
Kicking off the Boss' breakthrough but (in my opinion) overrated album Born to run is this sensational rocker of epic proportions. It's been almost 35 years since this song was originally released, but I don't think the Boss has ever bettered it. Perfect for a road trip, I recently read an opinion on a forum which stated that the "Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair" is one of the greatest moments in music in the past 50 years. When lost in the pure adrenaline of that moment, I tend to agree.
Cat Stevens - Father And Son
A masterclass in character-based songwriting, the singer-songwriter now known as Yusef Islam never bettered this song from his 1970 breakthrough album Tea for the Tillerman. Basically a conversation between a father and son at what appears to be a juncture in the son's life, it's a familiar theme which many can probably relate to: the son wants his independence, but the father tries to convince him using his many years of wisdom that he knows best. Cat Stevens plays both parts remarkably well, adapting his voice to suit each character.
Television - Marquee Moon
I gained even more respect for Richard Kingsmill when he placed this song at the top of his personal hottest 100 of all time. Quite frankly, there is no finer piece of mind blowing guitar virtuoso rock music than the ten minutes and forty seconds of this song. The guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd is nothing short of astonishing, while the rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca is perfectly understated. There are too many goosebump-raising moments in this song to mention here, and it is criminal that this song isn't bigger than it is.
Thin Lizzy - The Boys Are Back In Town
A classic rock staple of oldies stations, this is one song that never gets tired for me. As catchy as the song is, it's the late Phil Lynott's wonderful storytelling which elevates this song into the realms of greatness for me. When he sings about the chick at Johnny's place slapping Johnny's face, you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and taste the whiskey. The best Bruce Springsteen song that the boss never wrote or performed.
Tom Waits - Martha
For an artist as eccentric, eclectic and innovative as Tom Waits, choosing a relatively straight-forward ballad from his relatively normal sounding debut Closing time may seem like a bit of a cop-out. But I couldn't go past the tragic romantic imagery of this song. The lyrics tell a tale of a man named Tom Frost calling up Martha, one of his old flames, after 40 years. Martha has since been married and had children, and so has Tom. While Martha has understandably moved on in her life after such a long time, Tom is still carrying a torch for her. Tom (Waits) was in his early 20s when he wrote this song from the perspective of an old man with a broken heart. While his late-career songs are an acquired taste, on this tragic tale of unrequited love he proved that he could write torch songs with the best of them.
Stevie Wonder - As/Another Star
I'm cheating here a little by including 2 songs - but I simply couldn't separate them. Together, they form the climax of his remarkable double album Songs in the key of life. They are also 15 minutes of the most life-affirming pop/soul/R&B music you're ever likely to hear. Stevie interweaves themes of love, gospel and the universe, but the net result is a suite of music that sums up the title of the album perfectly. This is music to live your life by.
Bobby Womack - Across 110th Street
Another Tarantino soundtrack, another classic song. This time it's his 1997 movie Jackie Brown, and this was the trademark slow-motion opening credits number. Originally from the 1972 blaxploitation movie of the same name, it works wonderfully in Jackie Brown, but even better as a song on its own merit. This is a superb epic soul ballad which never fails to put a smile on my face whenever I hear it.
Neil Young - Powderfinger
The opening number of the "rock" side of 1979 album Rust never sleeps, this is an incredible song which doesn't outstay a moment of its almost 6 minute running time. It has great harmonies throughout, a wonderfully nostalgic (and at times disturbing) lyric and a very catchy wordless riff-based chorus after every verse. It also has (count them) 2 solos! An underrated Neil Young classic.