Thursday, July 14, 2016

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Modern Era: 40-21

By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

Ed. Note- We continue our look at the 100 Greatest Songs of the Modern Era with Part Four of our five-part series.

For Part One and Andy's methodology, click here.

For Part Two, click here.

For Part Three, click here.

Continue reading for Part Four.

40. Stand by Me by Ben E. King, 1961

Tim Jonze of The Guardian said, “As is the case with all the great pop songs, you can identify ‘Stand By Me’ by its opening few notes. Mike Stoller’s simple bassline, built around a 50s doo-wop chord progression, is decorated with little more than the faint ting of a triangle and the scrape of a gourd guiro – yet the effect is instant. King’s gospel-infused vocals followed this approach: the strength of his feelings imparted with no need for histrionics…King’s original version still wields the kind of emotional heft that can reduce people to tears, and get others on their feet at weddings…It’s especially fitting that a song about enduring love – a love able to survive, no matter what trials and traumas it encounters – was built equally strongly to stand the test of time.”

Stephen Thomas Erlewine maintained, “‘Stand By Me’ sounds like it wasn't written, that it just always existed…it had the same elegance as ‘Spanish Harlem,’ but there was a big difference. It was slower, statelier, anchored by one of the most memorable non-blues walking bass lines in history and King's warm, refined delivery. His performance is surrounded by a superb, subtle arrangement, where the majestic orchestra doesn't sweep in until the bridge where it cleverly disguises a key change. Best of all, ‘Stand By Me’ played like a love song, but it wasn't. It was a testament to friendship, one of the best of its kind in pop history.” An unforgettable bassline, endearing lyrics, a heartfelt vocal performance and a magnificent bridge come together to form a nearly perfect pop song that holds up after 55 years.

39. Light My Fire by The Doors, 1967

Inspired by John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things,’ drummer John Densmore said “This freedom, this improvisation that jazz has – let’s get it into rock & roll somehow.” Guitarist Robby Krieger wrote the basis of a song, his first for the band. Lead singer and poet Jim Morrison tacked on some clever lyrics, Densmore and organist Ray Manzarek added a jazzy interlude, and ‘Light My Fire’ was born. “Nobody had ever heard a song like it – Seven minutes, free-form, psychedelic. ‘Light My Fire’ was dark and brooding, haunting and romantic at the same time – a love song to a generation of iconoclasts, where love ends in a pile of ash, smoldering in a funeral pyre,” said NPR. “The song is a demarcation point in rock & roll history. It shattered the acceptable boundaries of popular music. Themes of love, mortality, intoxication and recklessness all offer a glimpse into the turbulent era that was to come soon after its release.” ‘Light My Fire’ turned The Doors into celebrities and established Jim Morrison as one of rock’s iconic frontmen.

38. Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses, 1987

Guitarist Slash was playing a “string skipping” exercise as a joke at a jam session when rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin’s stopped in his tracks and asked Slash to play it again. Immediately, the rest of the band started writing parts to complement Slash’s riff, which BBC, Total Guitar, and others now consider the greatest guitar riff of all time. Singer Axl Rose didn’t even think that was Slash’s ultimate contribution to the song: “My favorite part of the song is Slash’s slow solo; it’s the heaviest part for me.” Joined with Rose’s sincere lyrics, the “ability to combine ruggedness and vulnerability was the perfect hook the band needed to establish themselves as a massive commercial force – and the quality of their music didn’t hurt either…The song was an instant classic, and hasn’t lost an ounce of its potency since its release,” said Steve Huey of AllMusic. ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ was among the grittiest, hardest-hitting songs ever to top the American pop charts.

37. Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley, 1956

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said of ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ “That was the first rock and roll I heard. It was a totally different way of delivering a song, a totally different sound, stripped down, no bull----, no violins and ladies' choruses and schmaltz, totally different. It was bare right to the roots that you had a feeling were there but hadn't yet heard. I've got to take my hat off to Elvis. The silence is your canvas, that's your frame, that's what you work on; don't try and deafen it out. That's what ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ did to me. It was the first time I'd heard something so stark.”

The song had a similar impact on Paul McCartney, who said, “It's the way he sings it as if he is singing from the depths of hell. His phrasing, use of echo, it's all so beautiful. Musically, it's perfect." Fellow Beatle John Lennon echoed his praise: “When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We'd never heard American voices singing like that. They always sang like Sinatra or enunciate very well. Suddenly, there's this hillbilly hiccupping on tape echo and all this bluesy stuff going on.” Author Robert Matthew-Walker said, “‘Heartbreak Hotel became one of the legendary rock performances. For many people it is Elvis Presley, and it continues to excite and fascinate listeners. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is a classic performance, yet when it is analyzed it appears so simple that one cannot recall a time when one did not know it."

36. Hey Ya! by OutKast, 2003

The top-ranked song of the 21st century was, according to Rolling Stone, “not a likely recipe for a hit: a rock song with a bizarre 11/4 time signature by half of a hip-hop duo. [André 3000] played almost all the instruments on this irresistible party jam — he said that its guitar chords, the first he ever learned, were inspired by ‘the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Smiths.’” Similar to M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes,’ Hey Ya! succeeded in creating an ingenious blend of numerous genres. Blender called it an "electro/folk-rock/funk/power pop/hip-hop/neo-soul/kitchen sink rave-up," and NME described it as “a monumental barney between the Camberwick Green brass band, a cruise-ship cabaret act, a cartoon gospel choir and a sucker MC hiccupping 'Shake it like a polaroid pic-chaaaa!' backed up by the cast of an amateur production of The Wizard of Oz. Sort of.” PopMatters similarly described the song as “brilliantly rousing” and “spazzy with electrifying multiplicity,” and described its impact, saying, “with an eye toward the constant shifting of hip-hop’s relations to funk and pop, history and politics, the duo rejiggers the whole business.”

35. Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones, 1969

Ultimate Classic Rock said, “‘Gimme Shelter’ snuffs out the candle on the ‘60s and the “love generation” right along with it. The driving, mid-tempo groove never lets up from start to finish. Brittle guitars and the very effective use of percussion push the song forward…the perfect album opener.” During the Vietnam War, “The Stones channeled the emotional wreckage of the late Sixties on a song that Richards wrote in 20 minutes. The intro, strummed on an electric-acoustic guitar modeled on a Chuck Berry favorite, conjures an unparalleled aura of dread,” said Rolling Stone. “Singer Merry Clayton brings down Armageddon with a soul-wracked wail: "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away." The song surfaced days after Meredith Hunter's murder at Altamont. ‘That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really,’ Jagger said in 1995. ‘It's apocalypse.’ Richards later said that his guitar fell apart on the last take, ‘as if by design.’” Rarely does anyone steal the spotlight from Mick Jagger, but Merry Clayton does with her astounding performance.

34. One by U2, 1991

“Biting and unprecedentedly emotional," said Entertainment Weekly. Its "extravagant stylings and wild emotings...put it among Bono's most dramatic moments on record.” U2 lead guitarist The Edge said, "At the instant we were recording it, I got a very strong sense of its power...It's the reason you're in a band – when the spirit descends upon you and you create something truly affecting. 'One' is an incredibly moving piece. It hits straight into the heart." Niall Stokes of Hot Press stated that ‘One’ “seems transcendent, a magnificent synthesis of elements, words and music, rhythm, instrumentation, arrangement and intonation combine to create something that speaks a language beyond logic, the definitive language of emotional truth…utterly inspirational…soul music that avoids the obvious clichés of the genre and cuts to the core.” Although The Edge explains the lyrics as a “bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation,” Bono sees them as a message that “we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It's a reminder that we have no choice."

33. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ by The Righteous Brothers, 1964

Critic and author Steve Sullivan called the start of ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ “one of the most famous openings of any pop song in history: Without any instrumental introduction, [Bill] Medley’s basso-profundo voice sings, ‘You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips...’ The female backup singers and orchestra enter, and the wall of sound is upon us. The tone of melodrama and tension is evident from the opening seconds, and it builds relentlessly, reaching a peak with the gospel-flavored fervency of the duo as they go back and forth on the final stanza.” The song epitomizes producer Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique, and Spector’s biographer Mick Brown called this song his “defining moment.” At first, singer Bobby Hatfield thought the song was too slow, and he asked, “What do I do while [Medley is] singing the entire first verse?” Spector replied, “You can go directly to the bank.” Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys said after hearing the song, “I was ready to quit the music business, but this has inspired me to write again.”

32. Losing My Religion by R.E.M., 1991

R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe remarked, “None of us thought that ‘Losing My Religion’ had much potential. There’s no traditional chorus, and the lead instrument was a mandolin. My desire as a musician, if I ever had one, was to write a song of the summer, like the Stones’s ‘Miss You’ or Pharrrell Williams’s ‘Happy.’ Having a huge international summer hit is the biggest goal you can achieve as a pop artist. Nothing about ‘Losing My Religion’ should have made it that kind of hit. But that’s what the song became for us in 1991.” Heavy airplay for the song’s critically acclaimed video on MTV helped it reach that status. Stipe called ‘Losing My Religion’ “a classic obsession pop song. I’ve always felt the best kinds of songs are the ones where anybody can listen to it, put themselves in it and say, 'Yeah, that's me.’" The Wall Street Journal said it “struck a generational nerve. The angst-driven message song…explored self-doubt and unrequited love. The album not only was a commercial turning point for the alternative rock band but also paved the way for grunge rock’s bleaker view and breakthrough that fall.”

31. I Want to Hold Your Hand by The Beatles, 1963

While John Lennon and Paul McCartney often traded off chief songwriting duties, they wrote ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ “eyeball to eyeball,” as Lennon put it. “The lightning-bolt energy of their collaboration ran through the band's performance, taped October 17th, 1963. It lunges out of the speakers with a rhythm so tricky that the first wave of bands to cover the song often couldn't figure it out; Lennon and McCartney constantly switch between unison and harmonies, both of them snapping and whooping like they own the melody. Every element of the song is a hook, from Lennon's Chuck Berry riffing to George Harrison's string-snapping guitar fills to the quartet's syncopated hand claps,” said Rolling Stone. The song was The Beatles’ breakthrough hit in the United States, which earned it the No. 2 ranking on Mojo’s list of the Top 100 Records That Changed the World. Along with the rest of the American public, Bob Dylan was captivated by the song. “They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid.”

30. Be My Baby by The Ronettes, 1963

“Aided by a full orchestra (as well as a young Cher, who sang backup vocals), [Phil] Spector created a lush, echo-laden sound that was the Rosetta stone for studio pioneers such as the Beatles and Brian Wilson, who calls this his favorite song. ‘The things Phil was doing were crazy and exhausting,’ said Larry Levine, Spector's engineer. ‘But that's not the sign of a nut. That's genius.’” Spector called his technique, in which he incessantly over-dubbed a wide range of instruments, “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll,” and it was later labeled “the wall of sound.” This was the first time Spector truly mastered his method, which entranced Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, who called ‘Be My Baby’ the greatest pop record of all time. “I’d like to have a nickel for every joint he smoked trying to figure out how I got the ‘Be My Baby’ sound,” Spector quipped.

29. Let It Be by The Beatles, 1970

The title track to The Beatles’ final album, “‘Let It Be’ effectively became an elegy for the band that had defined the Sixties,” said Rolling Stone. Consequence of Sound calls ‘Let It Be’ “one of the all-time greats, and [Paul] McCartney’s finest hour at the piano. [George] Harrison’s guitar solo takes it that much higher, and the lyrics marry the music perfectly.” Though many criticized the album for its disjointedness, The quarreling Beatles came together one last time to produce a genuine, cohesive classic, which is remembered much more fondly than the album of the same name.

28. Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division, 1980

Perhaps the biggest cult classic in the top 100, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ does not appear on half of the all-time lists I aggregated, but it is beloved in much of Europe, ranked No. 1 by Germany’s Musikexpress and France’s Les Inrockuptibles, in addition to one American list. The song achieved its cult-classic status under tragic circumstances. “Hitting record store shelves as a 7” vinyl release not long before the band’s singer Ian Curtis took his own life on May 18, 1980, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ became a totemic record in the aftermath of that tragedy, widely taken as the last will and testament of a riveting yet tormented frontman,” said AJ Ramirez of PopMatters, who also called the song “the post-punk era’s most enduring anthem.” But the song’s surrounding circumstances were not the only aspects that played into its legacy. Dangerous Minds said, “It has an intrinsic and enduring melancholy beauty that surely resonates even with listeners who know nothing of the song’s tragic connections, and its lyrics, though highly literate, still touch the universal.”

27. All Along the Watchtower by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968

Jimi Hendrix gave Bob Dylan’s song an overhaul with an unforgettable guitar performance and a roaring vocal to transform it into possibly the most ambitious hard-rock song of the 1960s. Hendrix’s wonderfully imaginative four-part guitar solo is his most distinctive imprint on the song. He makes his instrument sing, using a variety of effects to create a brilliant sonic landscape for his hypnotically undulating notes, before he breaks the audience out of its trance with a howling vocal. Dylan said, “It overwhelmed me, really. [Hendrix] had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Dylan later said, “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way."

26. Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles, 1967

Rolling Stone said of the quintessential psychedelic rock song, “[John] Lennon often considered ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ his greatest accomplishment with the Beatles. The song, a surreal kaleidoscope of sound, was the first track recorded for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (although it was released as a single instead). The lyrics are a nostalgic look at Lennon's Liverpool childhood and an expression of his own pride.” They are also “psycho-analysis set to music,” according to Lennon. He explained, “I must be crazy or a genius – ‘I mean I must be high or low.’” Music critic and author Ian MacDonald said the song “shows expression of a high order…few if any [contemporary composers] are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original.” Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders said, “With that single, The Beatles raised the ante as to what a pop record should be.”

25. Layla by Derek and the Dominos, 1970

‘Layla’ grabs the listener’s attention immediately with an opening guitar riff that might be the most famous in all of rock & roll. Clapton and Duane Allman continue to unleash their guitar skills until the song’s drastic shift into its soothing, piano-driven coda, when the guitar part shifts to a slow, emotive cry. Producer Tom Dowd described the chemistry between the two, saying, “There had to be some sort of telepathy going on, because I've never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at that rate and level. One of them would play something, and the other reacted instantaneously. Never once did either of them have to say, 'Could you play that again, please?' It was like two hands in a glove.” Eric Clapton adds a layer of raw emotion when he begins singing about his then-unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, who was married to George Harrison. Boyd would go on to divorce Harrison in 1977 and marry Clapton in 1979, but at the time, Clapton’s sense of yearning was palpable. Boyd later said, “I think that he was amazingly raw at the time...He's such an incredible musician that he's able to put his emotions into music in such a way that the audience can feel it instinctively. It goes right through you.” Critic Dave Marsh agreed with Boyd, saying, “there are few moments in the repertoire of recorded rock where a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a me 'Layla' is the greatest of them.”

24. Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, 1970

American Songwriter contends that the song’s lyrics “successfully skate that line between the cliché and the universal. ‘Bridge’ is a modern hymn set to gospel piano…Today, the song and its message of brotherhood and caring are as relevant as ever and the aching promise of Garfunkel’s go-for-broke vocals remains one of the most moving performances by any singer in American popular music.” Pitchfork says the song’s grandiose drama comes “not only from Garfunkel’s intense, measured vocals but also from the resonating percussion, which mimics the echoing crack of sound against a cathedral wall.” Ironically, the song about friendship caused many fights between the two men and led them to split up shortly after the record’s release. But decades later, its uplifting message still resonates with millions of people.

23. Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones, 1968

Mick Jagger considers the song’s samba groove its defining musical feature, arguing that it “has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn't speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it has also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive…it has a very sinister thing about it. But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece.” The Rolling Stones continued the song’s sinister theme by writing lyrics from the devil’s point of view, which prompted rumors that they were devil worshippers. Jagger thought this was surprising, since “It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back. People seemed to embrace the image so readily, it has carried all the way over into heavy metal bands today.” Ultimate Classic Rock said, “‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ the lead-off anthem from 1968’s ‘Beggars Banquet,’ is the most adventurous and innovative track in the Rolling Stones’ massive songbook. Originally written by Mick Jagger as a slice of straightforward, Dylan-esque folk, ‘Sympathy’ was drastically revamped into a grand, densely layered opus…More than four decades later, it’s difficult to pinpoint a more spine-tingling rock moment than Jagger’s opening ‘Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste.’”

22. Superstition by Stevie Wonder, 1972

“‘Superstition' is one of those classics which just about everyone would admit is full of get-up-and-go. A full discussion of its twists and turns would cover twenty pages or so,” said NME. Ed Hogan of AllMusic called it “a glowing example of [Stevie Wonder’s] new role as a producer” and said, “The cut has one of the best kickin’ horn sections ever.” Starting on a weak beat, a bass riff filled with loud, staccato notes drives the song in tandem with the horns. These short bass notes had only recently become feasible to play due to the development of electric keyboards. All of these distinctive elements united to result in a funk song that has stood the test of time better than any other.

21. My Generation by The Who, 1965

“[Pete] Townshend opened the song with a two-chord assault that beat punk rock to the punch by more than a decade. Bassist John Entwistle took the solo breaks with crisp, grunting aggression…Roger Daltrey's stuttering, howling performance, Townshend and Entwistle's R&B-inspired backing vocals, and the upward key changes created a vivid, mounting anxiety that climaxed with a studio re-creation of the Who's live gear-trashing finales, with Townshend spewing feedback all over Keith Moon's avalanche drumming,” said Rolling Stone. Townshend, Entwistle and Daltrey all made groundbreaking contributions to the song. Townshend foreshadowed punk-rock chord progressions, Entwistle performed one of rock’s first bass solos, and Daltrey’s stammering vocal became a symbol for millions of rebellious youths to rally behind. But, according to Rolling Stone, “The song wasn't intended as a youth-mutiny anthem at first. It was a Jimmy Reed-style blues, reflecting Townshend's fears about the impending strictures of adult life, famously captured in the line “Hope I die before I get old”…It was believed that [The Who’s] career would be incredibly brief.’ Instead, ‘My Generation’ became the Who's ticket to legend — their first British Top Five hit, and a battle cry for young mod rebels — and it established Townshend as a fearless and eloquent songwriter.”

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