Boxers, Babies, and B-Sides: My Top 15 Songs of All Time

Sam+Cooke+samcooke   elliott-smile5002

The+Ronettes       Stone Roses013-805136

These are the songs that grab me tightly and never let go. These are the songs that transport me to other worlds and allow me to uncover parts of my brain that I never knew existed. These are the songs that make my blood run hot in my veins and set my entire body on fire.

These are the songs for which I turn up my iPhone’s volume control to just about as high as it can go. These are the songs that capture complex, mind-blowingly awesome feelings that go beyond lyrics, melodies, and production. Some of these songs are widely regarded as being among the greatest recordings of all time. Some are not. In this list you’ll find both classics and underdogs. While trying to gather a list of my top fifteen songs of all time was hard enough (I originally wanted a top ten list, but, uh, that didn’t really work out), trying to rank them according to the fine degrees of quality that separate them was nearly impossible. So, beyond the top three, don’t take these numberings too seriously. Suffice it to say that all of these songs are perfect in every way, and each one will open your mind to the emotional power of music. The only rule is that an artist can have only one song on the list. And yeah, maybe I did try to spread out my list to cover a wide variety of songs, but I wanted to make sure that all different decades, genres, and styles made it onto the list. Sue me.

15. I Want You (1966)

by Bob Dylan, featured on Blonde on Blonde

Bob Dylan is seen as a master songwriter, weaving metaphors and symbols to create complex tapestries in each of his songs. And yet my favorite Dylan song has this for a chorus: “I want you, I want you, I want you, so bad.” Even so, the rest of the song is filled with typical Dylan wordplay, detailing the exploits of a drunken politician, a lonely organ grinder, and a dancing child, among other characters. I could never analyze what all of it means, I just know that it’s the sound of iconoclastic genius. But beyond the lyrics, the song’s beautiful folksy guitar line, proto-psychedelic mellotron fills, and the sound of Dylan’s drawling voice tie it all together into something truly incredible.

14. All of the Lights (2010)

by Kanye West, featured on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I have had many conversations that follow this general outline:

Me: “Ya know, I think Kanye West is the greatest artist around right now.”

Bozo: “What? Yeah right!”

Me: “No? Then who?”

Bozo: “I don’t know, but it’s definitely not Kanye West.”

First of all, if you don’t have a better choice for greatest modern artist, then you have no right to argue against mine. Secondly, who says that an egotistical rap artist can’t be one of the greatest artists of all time? Along those lines, who says that a track that features (gasp) Rihanna and (bigger gasp) Fergie can’t be one of the greatest songs of all time? Those of you who have been following my blog know that Kanye’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an important album for me, because it introduced me to the greatness that rap music can achieve. This song is the centerpiece of that album, and it is an opulent stew of twenty-first century pop. It’s one of the most well-produced and meticulously constructed songs I’ve ever heard. Every second brings a revelation.

13. This Is How It Feels (1990)

by Inspiral Carpets, featured on Life

Inspiral Carpets were one of the Big Three of Manchester’s late-80’s psychedelic rave/pop rock scene, otherwise known as Madchester (the other two being The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays). This is their best song, and one of the pinnacles of the Madchester movement. It’s achingly beautiful and devastatingly sad, and the ambiguity of the lyrics somehow only adds to those sentiments. With this three-minute song, Inspiral Carpets crafted an immaculate ode to the passivity and fatalism of British life.

12. Miss Misery (1997)

by Elliott Smith, featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack

Regular readers of this blog have heard me gush about this song before. To find out why it’s so important, check out my article from January 11th. But the reason why it’s one of my favorite songs is simply because of the songwriting. I mean, holy shit, the songwriting. You won’t find a better set of lyrics no matter how hard you look. And Elliott made it all seem so effortless. How did he do it? Pretty much everything on this track was played by Elliott, as with most of his other material. That mysterious, zeitgeist-evoking piano line. The sighing background vocals. Those rolling drums that appear whenever the song changes key. All of it flowed right from Elliott’s mind into this song. No wonder it changed indie music forever.

11. Born to Run (1975)

by Bruce Springsteen, featured on Born to Run

Not much I can say about this one. Some of the most iconic lyrics and melodies ever put on tape. An instrumental break that will send you to heaven and back. Clarence Clemons. Springsteen came off as both a hopeless romantic and a working class hero on this track, crooning about his woman seconds before roaring like a lion. An inspiring song.

10. Windowlicker (1999)

by Aphex Twin, featured on the “Windowlicker” single

Play this track for any given baby boomer, and watch as their face turns to terror and disappointment. They’ll ask, “What happened to music?” Hey, don’t ask me. All I know is this is the bizarre culmination of electronic music, and it broke down some of the last remaining barriers I had in my mind as to what music is supposed to sound like. Life before “Windowlicker” is a very different thing from life after “Windowlicker”. It reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, a stream-of-consciousness rant that somehow defines an undefinable feeling. Except this song has no words. Unless you count the French lady talking about dog biscuits.

9. Be My Baby (1963)

by The Ronettes, featured on Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes

You want me to tell you how this song was one of the heights of Phil Spector’s production career, and how it was massively influential to The Beach Boys and The Beatles. You’d prefer that I praise that opening kick drum, and relate how it made an appearance twenty-two years later in the noise-pop masterpiece “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain. You want me to say that I like it for its Wall of Sound, not for the whiny girl demanding that her love interest be her boyfriend. But I won’t. While the production is simply incredible, what really grabs me about this song is Ronnie Spector’s insistency. Be my baby NOW, says Ronnie. You’d better listen.

8. Just Like Heaven (1987)

by The Cure, featured on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

Brace yourself, it’s about to get sappy. And revealing. Maybe too revealing. Oh well. So a few years ago, I went to this summer camp which shall not be named, and I met this girl who shall not be named.  She was French. Tall, long blonde hair, pretty face, amazing smile. We were friends, kind of. I haven’t seen her since the day she left camp. She’s probably off at some French university right now, stealing hearts wherever she goes. Anyway, I think of her when I listen to this song.

7. Rebellion (Lies) [2004]

by Arcade Fire, featured on Funeral

Here it is. If you’re only going to listen to one indie rock song, let this be it. “Rebellion (Lies)” is the penultimate track from Arcade Fire’s 2004 masterpiece FuneralThis song has the perfect title, because it truly is rebellious. It’s subversive. It blatantly points out the cynicism that permeates our culture and seeps into our minds. And it contains the most perfectly placed handclaps I’ve ever heard. Come to think of it, any of Arcade Fire’s anthems could occupy this spot. Trying to identify their best song is even harder than ranking the songs on this list. Sprawl II, Wake Up, Afterlife, The Suburbs, No Cars Go, Keep the Car Running, Reflektor, Neighborhood #1, We Used to Wait. They could all go here. All I know is that Arcade Fire deserve a spot on this list, because they are hands down the best band of the millenniumI always thought that listening to an Arcade Fire album was like watching a Wes Anderson film. But then I watched some of his movies that weren’t Moonrise Kingdom and I realized something: Arcade Fire kicks Wes Anderson’s ass.

6. The Boxer (1969)

by Simon & Garfunkel, featured on Bridge over Troubled Water

Take a look at the single cover for “The Boxer”:


And people wonder why Simon & Garfunkel broke up. Yeah, Artie was on the back cover, but that’s the point. He was on the back cover. If someone were to ask me what beauty sounds like, I would play this song. I know that’s cliché, but it’s true. And it’s pretty impressive for a song that doesn’t even have words in its chorus. “Lie la lie, Lie la lie lie lie la lie.” I could listen to that a million times and never get tired of it. The imagery in this song is intense. I mean, he talks about having sex with a prostitute, and it’s one of the most emotionally affecting lines you will ever hear. Listening to this song is like curling up on a bench in Greenwich Village with a nest of rats right underneath you. But you know they won’t hurt you. You’re safe. Shh, go to sleep.

5. River Deep – Mountain High (1966)

by Ike & Tina Turner, featured on River Deep – Mountain High

Ike Turner was paid $20,000 for this song, and he doesn’t even appear on it. The money (and the artist credit) was a bribe from Phil Spector to keep him away from the studio so that Spector wouldn’t have to deal with Ike’s attitude. Pretty sweet deal for Ike, if you ask me. Except he didn’t get to participate in the creation of this marvelous song. This, even more so than “Be My Baby”, is the pinnacle of Spector’s Wall of Sound production. It’s the pinnacle of Tina Turner’s astounding vocal ability as well. It’s the pinnacle of revolutionary, cathartic, life-changing, epically produced, absolutely-perfect-in-every-way, every-inch-of-your-headphones-filling, pop-soul music. My, oh my.

4. There She Goes (1990)

by The La’s, featured on The La’s

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen The Parent Trap. The new one, with Lindsay Lohan. My sisters and I loved it when we were kids. I’m pretty sure every frame of that movie was burned into my prepubescent consciousness. That includes one scene, in which Hallie, playing her twin sister Annie, sees London for the first time as she rides through the city to meet her mom, and gazes around in awe at her new surroundings:

The background music to this scene? “There She Goes” by a short-lived Liverpudlian band known as The La’s. I loved this song before I even knew who the artist was. So when I made my rounds through the world of Britpop, I was delighted that this song appeared as the fifth track on what is now one of my favorite albums, The La’s self-titled debut. The brutally simple yet beautiful riff is one of the only licks I can play on guitar. And I am damn proud of that. This song is one that everybody knows, from radio play alone, whether you know the band or not. And it perfectly evokes that scene from The Parent Trap. Listening to this song makes you look at the world around you with pure wonder, as if seeing it for the first time.

3. Good Vibrations (1966)

by The Beach Boys, featured on Smiley Smile and The Smile Sessions

The general public thinks of The Beach Boys as two bands: a teenybopper act known for churning out silly surf music (“Surfin’ Safari”) and a past-their-prime oldies act desperately trying to reclaim their youth (“Kokomo”). Many people forget that in between those two periods, The Beach Boys were a revolutionary psychedelic pop act. “Good Vibrations” is the apex of that period. This 1966 “pocket symphony” was originally supposed to appear on an album called Smile, which the boys abandoned after lots of infighting and Brian Wilson’s journey to the brink of sanity, the latter of which was brought about by copious amounts of LSD. I’m not going to describe this song, because I can’t. Just listen, and you’ll see why this is viewed as one of the best songs ever made. It’s not cool to like The Beach Boys. But in my opinion, they are the greatest band that America has ever, and will ever, produce.

2. She Bangs the Drums (1989)

by The Stone Roses, featured on The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses, hailing from the same Madchester scene as Inspiral Carpets, are my favorite band. But this song and the incredible album it appears on weren’t what convinced me of that fact. It was actually their B-sides collection, Turns into Stone. I thought, if their B-sides are this awesome, then they have to be my favorite band. They just have to be. “She Bangs the Drums” and its B-sides “Standing Here” and “Mersey Paradise” surely comprise the greatest single ever released. Here’s the way I view “She Bangs the Drums”: when I listen to it, I am inside the song. Do you know what it’s like to exist within a piece of music, to be fully engulfed in its universe? I do. This is the only song I have ever listened to that has taken me by the hand, led me into its world, and asked me “So, what do you think?” And I reply, “I like it. I really, really like it.”

1. A Change Is Gonna Come (1964)

by Sam Cooke, featured on Ain’t That Good News

Speaking of B-sides, this song was one. Let me repeat that. This song was a B-SIDE. Its A-side? “Shake”, a song that contains such masterfully written lyrics as “Shake! Shake! Shake! Shake!”, “Shake it like a bowl of soup”, and the consummate line “Ding-a-ling-a-ling”. All joking aside, this is the most powerful song ever recorded. Is it the most fun? The most happy? No. But it’s the most hopeful, and that counts for something. Actually, it counts for everything. The song’s writer and performer, Sam Cooke, never lived to see this masterpiece’s commercial success and adoption as a Civil Rights anthem. He died a tragic and undignified death just weeks before its release. I went to a black church service as part of a youth group program a few years ago (I’m Jewish), and the choir performed this song. Which is fitting, because this track reaches biblical proportions. “I was born by the river, in a little tent” is the opening line. That phrase evokes the story of Moses, who, like Sam Cooke, never reached the promised land. Cooke’s promised land was not only the era of racial equality, but also the glorious reception that this song, and his career as a whole, would eventually receive. Rolling Stone ranked “A Change Is Gonna Come” as the twelfth greatest song of all time. Maybe this is a pretentious choice for my favorite song. But I really don’t think so. Because this song affects me like no other. And if any song can claim to have irrevocably changed both the world outside and my own little world of music adoration, it would have to be this one. This song showed me just how much emotion can be packed into the human voice, and how strings and horns can be even more effective at communicating feeling than electric guitars. This song showed me the power of soul, and not just the genre, but the burning energy locked away inside the soul of each and every human being.

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Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode

Shoot to Thrill by AC/DC

Dear Prudence by The Beatles

Whenever You’re Ready by The Zombies

Heart of Glass by Blondie

Sheena Is a Punk Rocker by The Ramones

The Chain by Fleetwood Mac

Some Might Say by Oasis

Cathy’s Clown by The Everly Brothers

Age of Consent by New Order

I Want to Take You Higher by Sly and the Family Stone

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ by Michael Jackson

Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks

Hateful by The Clash

Expectations by Belle and Sebastian

Losing My Religion by R.E.M.

How Soon Is Now? by The Smiths

Holland, 1945 by Neutral Milk Hotel

Roundabout by Yes

Will You Love Me Tomorrow by The Shirelles

Get Ready by The Temptations

I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye

(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson

Crazy by Patsy Cline

Paris 1919 by John Cale


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