I’m reading and enjoying Bob Dylan’s preposterous, eccentric and enjoyable “The Philosophy of Modern Song” (not Nobel Prize material) and around the same time, I stumbled into this attempt to explain what I was thinking of as my Top 40 favorite songs. I think I wrote it somewhere between five and ten years ago and I would put them in a different order now or maybe change a few.
Not as dreamy or odd as Dylan but still worth a quick read perhaps.
40: I Was Made to Love Her Stevie Wonder
Just pure joy, rhythm and exuberance. I’m pretty sure this will be the last thing on my list without a tinge of melancholy or politics or strangeness, so enjoy it while you can. I also had a childhood sweetheart named Suzy and I still sometimes suspect that I was made to love her, although that’s long past.
39: Venus In Furs Velvet Underground
Yes, yes. It takes after the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man who gave masochism its good name, and the music hurts so good, does it not? Slow, slightly-off instrumentation and yet a hummable through-line. The payoff is in the lines: “I am tired. I am weary. I could sleep for a thousand years.” Blunt but literate blues for when you’re coming down or going down or getting old.
38: Long Black Veil The Band
I never liked The Band all that much… or I didn’t realize how much I liked them until I started considering this list and several of their mournful classics popped up in my head and wouldn’t let go. It’s a western (as in cowboy) tinged murder ballad, but the lyrics and music set a mood more than they tell a story.
37: Wish You Were Here Pink Floyd
All rise for the baby boomer national anthem! Oh wait, they were Brits. Well, same difference. If you’re between 57 and 67 and the lyrics don’t slay you, you weren’t paying attention then or you’re too comfortably numb now.
36: Blank Generation Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Richard Hell took John Lennon’s angriest slashiest guitar work and slashed it twice as hard and three times as fast (2022 edit. The guitar may be Voidoid Robert Quine)… and these lyrics are as good as anything Lennon ever wrote (except for maybe a few lines in Happiness is a Warm Gun). The entire album of the same name is arguably the masterpiece of early NYC punk.
35: Only The Stones Remain Soft Boys
At the start of the ‘80s, Robyn Hitchcock’s spirited jab at the beginning of the end of whatever that thing was that happened in the prior two decades. It’s exuberant, it rocks, it’s surreal and it’s a bit funny. That lad had a great career ahead of him.
34: Angry Johny Poe
There are plenty of one hit wonders but this one rises above the rest. Perfectly executed… and I do mean executed. A song for the age of Gamergate? (note: this was written a while ago)
33: Watching the Detectives Elvis Costello
Sometimes the music… even just the bass line… is so perfect and weaves so elegantly in and out of the words… that my language fails me. Incidentally, in my opinion, Elvis (along with the Attractions, on occasion) had the longest string of consecutive really good albums in the history of recorded music — from My Aim is True through Punch The Clock.
32: Pleasures of the Harbor Phil Ochs
More melancholia… this one involving soldiers and prostitutes, rendered with as much tenderness as can be mustered by a human. And with a lovely melody to match. Ochs is remembered for his protest songs, but it’s his more complex lyrical and musical pieces that ought to be recognized.
31: Rocket Man Pearls Before Swine
No, not that Rocket Man (although that one was certainly ok… about as good as it got on the AM radio at the time), this one came first and is much stranger, although the storylines intersect in a way. The hits are going from melancholy to melancholy…est here. I had to check to see if Tom Rapp (the man behind Pearls) committed suicide. Heck no. He quit music and became a successful civil rights lawyer. And he started performing again in the ‘90s.
30: Brown Sugar Rolling Stones
The best colonial anti-colonial work of genius you’ll ever have the privilege to misunderstand or underestimate. Genet in a perfectly faceted 3 minute rock song. The old fella probably doesn’t remember those early 1970s influences.
29: The Boxer Simon and Garfunkel
How many great lines can you pack into one song? Lyrically profound (not a word one uses often in pop music), with a nice crescendo near the end that brings out the emotion of it all.
28: Anarchy for the UK Sex Pistols
Even having already absorbed The Ramones, Richard Hell, Patti Smith etc., this song was like a clarifying explosion on a nuclear scale. It intended to blow the cobwebs off of the rock, which still presumed to have a drop of countercultural cred. No horseshit should have survived it (unless it was genius horseshit on a Dalinian or McLarenian scale). And yet here we are still baptized in banality (to steal a phrase from Jeff Koons). I sometimes wonder if younger people can get the full impact of songs from the ’60s or ‘70s so out of context. (Assignment: explain to me why Hello Goodbye was actually clever.) I meet some who do… and they amaze me. Oh yes, music… I think the Sex Pistols were not just a rebel legend, but a great band, fresh in the way that The Beatles were fresh in ’63, at least when they still had Matlock on bass.
27: Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands Bob Dylan
If it were my top 100, there’d probably be about 5 Dylan songs on it, but this one takes the cake. It brings out Dylan’s poignant romanticism, his empathy with women (with the barest hint of misogyny), his Whitmanesque Song-of-Myself romanticism (“My warehouse eyes/My Arabian drums”), and even the length of the song signaled epic (before that word was so abused) when it was released in 1966. The music is lovely. He’s a very tender and evocative harmonica player when he wants to be too.
26: Black Peter Grateful Dead
I was never much of a Deadhead. But there was something about their mournful side so tinged with sweetness and compassion and Jerry Garcia’s voice that does it for me. This one is about dying: “See here how everything leads up to this day/And it’s just like every other day/That’s ever been.” Robert Hunter pretty much sums it up… as he often did.
25: Papa Don’t Take No Mess James Brown
Rhythmically this is as good as James Brown gets and James Brown was as good as it gets. Papa sounds a bit abusive, but you want to clean up that mess for him because of the way this record moves your body soul and spirit.
24: Ghost Dance Patti Smith Group
Here’s another one that may be hard to get out of context. It may even seem a bit pretentious for a countercultural punk rock poet to conjure Native American spirit and outrage, but in 1978, the repressed promise of the late ‘60s was still raw enough for this to feel right. It still touches me, in that way. Marianne Faithful got it, and did a really good version with help from Keith Richards and Ron Woods, but Patti Smith Group’s version is the best.
23: Waterloo Sunset The Kinks
This one is just whimsical and lovely.
22: We Gotta Get Out Of This Place The Animals
The title says it all. Eric Burdon and company apply all the power of working class white boy blues to the problem. As a suburban white boy, my first real blues experience was probably hearing The Animals play House of the Rising Sun. I remember it. I was playing football with some kids on my front lawn and as the song played, I was thunderstruck. I felt something. Everything stopped for a moment. And then the football hit me on the face. A few minutes later, I was stung on the throat by a bee. First World problems… white boy blues.
21: I Put A Spell On You Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Really? This Voudou was on the radio in 1956? No wonder fundamentalists were freaking out about rock ‘n’ roll! I vaguely remember liking it as a child, but a crazy Brit called Arthur Brown really put it on my radar during the ‘60s with his own insanely great version. Loved it. Listened to the original again and loved that even more.
20: Space is the Place Sun Ra
Twenty one minutes of cosmic vibes, honking and chanting that will come to take you further away than any magical mystery tour ever could. I think of this as Sun Ra’s theme song. If you don’t know Sun Ra, check it and enter into a whole new dimension of hyperspace. I was fortunate enough to live in a town that the Arkestra played twice in the early ‘70s. Thanks to this I knew that George Clinton was possible.
19: Halo of Flies Alice Cooper
Meanwhile, back on earth, trouble was brewing. I once recited various Alice Cooper lyrical fragments to some English students and asked them to guess who wrote them. I don’t think they will ever forget that Alice Cooper and the guys who were in his band were freakin’ weird-ass geniuses. This is the ultimate Alice and has been covered by a gazillion different metal bands since. Music for mercenaries, psychos, revolutionaries and other demented types.
18: Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine) James Brown
The definitive James Brown with the sex up front. And his bands, in this case the J.B.s, were always precision funk machines — wound up tighter than a clock because if they messed up, James would fuck ‘em! OK, not literally. But they learned to duck cause papa didn’t take no mess.
17: Madame George Van Morrison
A somewhat obscure, brave and loving portrayal of a bohemian transvestite, lyrical and touching, with that Van Morrision touch of repetition/incantation that he mainly saved for his longer efforts. This one is 10 minutes and I could listen to it for another 10.
16: Entertain Sleater-Kinney
All the rage and all the brilliance of smart punk (riot grrl division). Really, every line is golden… mainly thanks to the delivery.
15: I’ll Take You There Staple Singers
“Ain’t no smilin’ faces/Smiling at the racists” Ok, so they made it officially “races” instead… but it was the early ‘70s, so we heard it the way we thought it… some of us. Never mind. The rhythm and the vocals scratch at all the funkiest parts and that’s all you need. It really will take you there.
14: Kashmir Led Zeppelin
I’m not sure if there’s anything mystical and/or magickal about Kashmir… I think maybe Page has his face buried in Magick in Theory and Practice and took a wrong turn on his way to tangiers. but it hardly matters. Plant and Page used their hallucinations to evoke some monumental psychedelic transmutational spirits. I think Kashmir is an architectural Big Rock masterpiece. The fact that I heard this while high on DMT while crossing the Bay Bridge in the back of a van has only slightly colored my view. It was my favorite Zep song before that revelatory experience.
13: Pressure Drop Toots and the Maytals
Back in ’72, ’73, everybody was listening to The Harder They Come soundtrack but this was the cut that made you jump up and let go. It’s been doing it ever since. “Pressure’s got the drop on you you you.” The message has survived every zeitgeist. In fact, I’d suggest that there’s a Moore’s Law of pressure. You better go work it out on the dance floor.
12: Soul Kitchen The Doors
Here’s everything you could want from a Doors song and if you dis The Doors I suggest you revisit this one. Passion, poetry, blurred visions, bruised brains… it’s 1967! That whole first Doors album is pretty much perfect.
11: Paint It Black Rolling Stones
Paint it black you devils! Well, it’s nominally about a lost love but it’s actually about, well, painting it black… as in… let’s have a RIOT! In the Rolling Stones approved bio film, Crossfire Hurricane, the song plays to a collage of kids going berserk, rioting and attacking cops at Rolling Stones concerts and political protests. The ending is the real pay off… a sort of chant with a middle eastern edge. It invited a sort-of frantic ‘60s youth hora dance preparatory to revolution. Really, this sort of thing would happen then.
10: One Nation Under A Groove Parliament Funkadelic
It’s the feel good hit of the multiverse and representative of the best of the US of America (the best Clinton America has). I vote for it! I blasted this one out at full volume the instant Mr. Obama got elected (the first time) in 2008. It didn’t turn out that way, but if anybody can get us to feel the hope for change of a funky and fairly trippy sort, it’s George Clinton.
9: Tears of Rage The Band
Some of Dylan’s most compassionate and deeply felt if slightly elusive lyrics made even more sorrowful by The Band. Richard Manuel’s vocals are at the very edge of a man about to weep and wail.
8: All Tomorrow’s Parties Velvet Underground
Do I even really have to explain this? Nico, The Velvets, Lou Reed’s lyrics evoking a slightly tatty lower Manhattan Demimonde and the music just right.
7: O Superman (For Massanet) Laurie Anderson
Laurie’s work was somehow too self-consciously cool and clever to bring us back for frequent listening, but on those occasions when we were in the right mood, she was our mischievous mistress of postmodern ceremonies. This was the sort of bust out hit song (to the extent that a performance artist gets a bust out hit song) and, if it’s not exactly emotive, it’s certainly haunting and very extraordinary as in non-ordinary.
6: Danger Bird Neil Young and Crazy Horse
In all their ragged glory. Neil Young hitting all those slightly off–minor keys and strangling passion out of one of those slow almost-note-free guitar solos. There are a dozen Neil Young and Crazy Horse songs that are very similar that I like almost as much.
5: Memo from Turner Mick Jagger
“You’ll still be in this circus when I’m laughing in my grave.” Where did that guy go? Well, at least we still have the recording of one of the most lyrically demented (and sharp) songs in music history. “You gentlemen, why… you all work for me!” Well, at least that part came true.(Ry Cooder should have gotten credit for the music. And the stones rolled everyone)
4: God Only Knows Beach Boys
I remember I was 13 and we were visiting some friends of my parents somewhere near a beach on Long Island. There was a girl who was somewhere between my older brother David’s age and my own and she was flirting with him. I went back to the house where I found the Beach Boys 45 Wouldn’t It Be Nice sitting next to a record player. After listening to the A Side, I flipped it over. I heard God Only Knows. I was transfixed. For years, I thought of that song as my own little secret. Now it’s a widely recognized masterpiece.
3: The Thrill of It All Roxy Music
Whip yourself into a hedonistic frenzy. It’s perhaps ironic that rock’s most elegantly brilliant posers made this song to drive you out of your mind and make your body shake and quake like no other, but there you go.
2: God is Alive, Magic is Afoot Buffy Saint-Marie
Take one narrow rationalist, add a dose of whatever, wait two hours and sit him or her in front of the speakers as Buffy intones Leonard Cohen’s prayer in an ominous and shaky voice. Repeat yearly. Me? I’m officially agnostic, except when I’m not.
1: I Am The Walrus The Beatles
Probably the most influential entertainers of the 20th Century, The Beatles stormed the barricades of what was thinkable and feel-able for teen idols just a couple of years after holding our hands and this one… my god, how could they? It was 1968. I was 15. I had just finished the section in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf in which Harry Haller has his mind blown and his ego stripped bare in the Magic Theater when the DJ on the AM radio drew my attention to a new Beatles single that he was very excited about. As it played, a shock of exultation ripped through my skull. It was at that moment that young Mr. Sirius shed the earnest seeker and transmuted into a Heyoka (which Lord Nose translated for me as Lakota for “upside down inside out man.”)