Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Modern Era: 80-61

By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

Ed. Note- We continue our look at the 100 Greatest Songs of the Modern Era with Part Two of our five-part series. To look back at songs No. 100-81, and to see Andy's methodology, click here.

80. A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum, 1967

Numerous sources cite ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ as the most-played record in the UK since the mid 1930s. Rolling Stone called Procol Harum’s surreal debut “a somber hymn supported by an organ theme straight out of Bach,” and noted that it “helped kick-start the classical-rock boomlet that gave the world the Moody Blues.” Said The Guardian’s Richard Williams, “it skipped across centuries with its infallibly seductive Bach-goes-to-Muscle Shoals organ lead and chord progression and a wonderfully dippy lyric which could be taken to mean anything or nothing…[Gary Brooker’s] blue eyed soul voice proved oddly perfect for this eternally enigmatic masterpiece.”

79. River Deep, Mountain High by Ike & Tina Turner, 1966

Before entering semi-retirement, Phil Spector, the pioneer of the “Wall of Sound,” produced what the Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings called “a finale the world would never forget: his biggest production ever, featuring one of the most thrilling voices he had ever encountered, Tina Turner.” Spector and Ike Turner both had vicious tempers and perfectionistic styles in the studio, so Spector paid Ike $20,000 and offered him credit on the song as long as he stayed out of the studio. Tina later said, “I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat.” But her sweating paid off with what The Beatles’ George Harrison called “a perfect record from start to finish. You couldn’t improve upon it.”

78. Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, 1975

Narrowly edging ‘Comfortably Numb’ as Pink Floyd’s top song, ‘Wish You Were Here’ serves as a subtle tribute to former frontman Syd Barrett, who left the band after a drug-induced mental breakdown. The thoughtful lyrics flow magnificently with the melodies to create a finished product that is powerful, despite its tranquility. Pink Floyd achieved that flow through an uncharacteristically interactive collaboration between primary songwriters Roger Waters and David Gilmour.

77. California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas, 1965

‘California Dreamin’ co-writer Michelle Phillips once said, “It’s really about getting out from under the circumstances of your life, and going to a better place. That’s a theme that doesn’t lose appeal.” The better place the song referenced was California, perpetuating the “California Myth” that bands like The Beach Boys popularized in the early 1960s. Dreams of perfect weather, nice cars, pretty girls, the beach, surfing, and youthful innocence all resonated with people struggling through cold northern winters. Denny Doherty’s empowered lead vocal performance drives home the lyrics’ sense of longing. Hal Blaine’s vigorous drumming and Bud Shank’s unique alto-flute solo provide the finishing touches on an expertly crafted song.

76. Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley, 1969

Biographer Peter Guralnick praised Elvis’ singing, citing his “remarkable mixture of tenderness and poise” combined with “an expressive quality somewhere between stoicism (at suspected infidelity) and anguish (over impending loss).” Said rock critic Alan Light, “‘Suspicious Minds presented an emotional complexity, a rendering of an adult struggle with an adult situation, that was unprecedented in the Presley canon.” Mark James wrote and originally recorded the song, but Elvis sang it with conviction, as though he were experiencing the story the lyrics told. After serving in the military and pursuing an acting career for years, The King proved he had not lost his prowess as a musical performer.

75. The Tracks of My Tears by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, 1965

According to Rolling Stone, “Legend had it that audiences would actually break into tears when Robinson and the Miracles sang ‘The Tracks of My Tears.’ ‘It tapped into their emotions,’ said Moore of the Miracles…When Robinson cut ‘Tears,’ it was such a clear winner that even hard-to-please Motown founder Berry Gordy proclaimed it a masterpiece.” Marv Tarplin set the stage for Robinson with his famous opening guitar licks. Robinson’s lyric, “Although she may be cute, she’s just a substitute, because you’re the permanent one” inspired Pete Townshend to write The Who’s 1966 hit song ‘Substitute.’

74. Your Song by Elton John, 1970

John Lennon called Elton John’s first pop hit “the first new thing that’s happened since we [The Beatles] happened. It was a step forward. There was something about his vocal that was an improvement on all of the English vocals until then.” The finest of many Elton John ballads introduced the English singer to American audiences and established him as a star.

73. With or Without You by U2, 1987

Rolling Stone said of U2’s first United States No. 1 hit, “‘With or Without You’ – with its simple bass groove and ethereal guitar hum framing Bono’s yearning vocals – was one of U2’s most universal songs to date, a meditation on the painful ambivalence of a love affair.” U2 guitarist The Edge considered the song’s minimalist ending “brave, because [it] could have been so much bigger, so much more of a climax, but there’s this power to it which I think is even more potent because it’s held back.”

72. Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, 2006

‘Crazy’ was “an insanely infectious piece of music with elements from a host of musical genres: powerfully soulful, rooted in hip-hop, with a retro-pop sheen, rock-tinged, and an incredibly cool dance track…That melody, adapted from a 1960s spaghetti Western theme, combined with Cee-Lo’s sky high falsetto, a slick arrangement with strings, a quietly rumbling rhythm track, and those simple but compelling lyrics, produced a modern pop classic,” said music author and critic Steve Sullivan. The song weaved genres together seamlessly, allowing it to top a diverse range of charts and maintain its appeal after more than a decade.

71. Dancing Queen by Abba, 1976

Donald A. Guarisco of AllMusic praises ‘Dancing Queen’ for its “sophisticated melody that builds from languid yet seductive verses to a dramatic chorus that ascends to heart-tugging high notes as the lyrics reach their emotional peak. The result is a song whose sincerity and sheer musicality have allowed it to outlast the disco boom and become a standard of dance-pop.” In the fad-filled disco era of the mid-1970s, the incredibly catchy, passionate melodies of ‘Dancing Queen’ have separated it from the crowd and helped it stand the test of time.

70. Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve, 1997

When The Verve sampled The Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s remake of The Rolling Stones’ song ‘The Last Time,’ the Stones’ copywriters forced them to assign songwriting credits to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and give up all royalties from the song. Richards scoffed at The Verve for not being able to write a great song on their own, but the single became Jagger and Richards’ most successful since ‘Brown Sugar’ in the early 1970s. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ turned a forgotten cover into a timeless, majestic rock song, and The Verve certainly deserves some credit for making that transformation.

69. Hound Dog by Elvis Presley, 1956

Originally by Big Mama Thornton, ‘Hound Dog’ became a sensation when Elvis Presley dynamically performed it on TV. Elvis then looked to perfect the song in the studio. As Rolling Stone explained, “With snarling vocal authority, D.J. Fontana’s tommy-gun drumrolls and slashing guitar by Scotty Moore, Presley transformed the song’s blues changes and put-down rhymes into a declaration of independence from his generation’s cold, rigid elders…It was also the song in which he told the world: Like it or not, rock & roll is here to stay.” Authors Rick Kennedy and Randy MacNutt credited the song with “helping to spur the evolution of black R&B into rock music.”

68. Tangled Up in Blue by Bob Dylan, 1975

The Telegraph called Bob Dylan’s work "The most dazzling lyric ever written, an abstract narrative of relationships told in an amorphous blend of first and third person, rolling past, present and future together, spilling out in tripping cadences and audacious internal rhymes, ripe with sharply turned images and observations and filled with a painfully desperate longing." Bob Dylan wittily explained his writing, saying, “You've got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there's very little you can't imagine not happening."

67. A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, 1964

Sam Cooke rose to fame with pleasant, upbeat pop/soul standards such as ‘You Send Me’ and ‘Wonderful World.’ But after being turned away from a motel due to the color of his skin, Cooke decided he could not shy away from the issue of race any longer. Released two weeks after he was fatally shot, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ quickly became a civil rights anthem. Complete with a full string section, the song was Cooke’s most structurally complex composition. Bolstered by its lyrical substance and surrounding circumstances, it proved to be Cooke’s most enduring masterpiece.

66. Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan, 1963

The song that inspired Sam Cooke to write ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was, according to Rolling Stone, “the most famous protest song ever written.” Journalist Mick Gold commends the titular lyric, calling it “impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind.” Critic Andy Gill noted that, “for the first time, Dylan discovered the effectiveness of moving from the particular to the general…‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ could be applied to just about any freedom issue. It remains the song with which Dylan’s name is most inextricably linked, and safeguarded his reputation as a civil libertarian through any number of changes in style and attitude.” Many were stunned that a white man could write a powerful civil rights anthem that rang so true.

65. Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams) by Daft Punk, 2013

Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker said ‘Get Lucky,’ the most recent song in the top 100, was “as close to magic as pop comes.” Amy Sciarretto of PopCrush called it “excellent and unforgettable…if disco was still a viable genre in 2013, then ‘Get Lucky’ would reinvent the neo-disco genre and sound. Be honest – weren’t you grooving in your chair to the looped beat that is the track’s undercurrent? ...‘Get Lucky’ represents all that’s right with electronic music.” Already one of the best-selling singles of all time, it was overwhelmingly regarded as the best song of 2013; Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, NME, Village Voice: Pazz & Jop, The Guardian, Pop Matters, Spin, and copious others all agreed.

64. I Want You Back by The Jackson 5, 1969

The iconic smash hit that introduced 11-year-old Michael Jackson to the world had a chorus featuring what Pitchfork called “possibly the best chord progression in pop music history.” The beat was the first taste of Motown’s turn toward a more funky sound in the 1970s. It also became one of the most imitated and sampled beats in hip hop. Few songs – if any – can get people of all ages rushing to the dance floor faster than ‘I Want You Back.’

63. The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, 1982

Rolling Stone called ‘The Message’ “a breakthrough in hip-hop, taking the music from party anthems to street-level ghetto blues…the song, driven by its signature future-shock synth riff and grim lyrics about urban decay, became an instant sensation on New York’s hip-hop radio.” David Hinckley of the New York Daily News said, in addition to forcing the pop world to notice rap and deal with hip hop culture, “‘The Message’ crystallized a critical shift within rap itself. It confirmed that emcees, or rappers, had vaulted past the deejays as the stars of the music.” When rap was just party music, rappers were an afterthought compared to the celebrated DJs. With ‘The Message,’ the art of rapping became truly serious and widely respected for the first time.

62. Wonderwall by Oasis, 1995

While Oasis had already achieved celebrity status in the UK, ‘Wonderwall’ was the song that brought them stardom in the United States. One of the most covered songs of all time, its ambiguous lyrics allow for many different interpretations. These lyrics carry extra weight because they are emphasized so naturally with the smooth rhythm of the music. Chris True of AllMusic called ‘Wonderwall’ the song that earned Noel Gallagher “worldwide respect for his writing ability. From the simple acoustic intro, through the strategically placed drum entrance (a split second after the word ‘backbeat’), to the final refrain, ‘Wonderwall’ is both one of the best Oasis songs and one of the best love songs ever written.” According to True, Noel’s brother Liam “became to many the frontman of the decade…Oasis has had a lot of shining moments, but ‘Wonderwall’ was their brightest.”

61. My Girl by The Temptations, 1964

When Smokey Robinson heard The Temptations perform, he was impressed by David Ruffin, who had never sung lead vocals on a Temptations single. Robinson, determined to write a hit tailored to Ruffin’s style, wrote ‘My Girl,’ which he called “melodic and sweet,” but also a song that Ruffin could “belt out.” Ruffin did not disappoint. ‘My Girl’ reached No. 1 on the charts and became The Temptations’ signature song.

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