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100 FROM 1977 - 2003:
THE BEST SONGS SINCE JOHNNY ROTTEN ROARED
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70 THE PIXIES
"Where Is My Mind?"

What's amazing about this song may not be its singular impact at the time of its release. Sure, it was a great tune but it was on an album full of incendiary rock 'n' roll. Surfer Rosa is clearly one of the greatest albums of the last 25 years. Frank Black and Kim Deal (a.k.a. "Mrs. John Murphy") gave us "Gigantic", "Bone Machine", and, of course, "Where Is My Mind?" How do you pick just one? Luckily, you don't have to. But if you want evidence of the Pixies' timelessness, check the ending credits of the criminally under appreciated flick Fight Club. Yep, that's Black and Co. And you know what? It doesn't sound remotely out of place snuggled up next to the rest of the Dust Brothers soundtrack.
      — Mitch Pugh

69 THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
"Birdhouse in Your Soul"

"Who knew the perfect pop song and the perfect They Might Be Giants song could intersect so, well, perfectly? The 1990 U.S. pop charts favored their remake of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", so "Birdhouse" remains TMBG's Greatest Hit That Wasn't Quite, something you imagine the smarter radio stations playing when recent history becomes tomorrow's classic rock. Like so many songs by Johns Linnell and Flansburgh, "Birdhouse" is simultaneously heartfelt and clever, beautiful but unsentimental. Here, a nightlight sings of his dedication and limitations ("I'd be fired if that was my job," he notes of a lighthouse), and TMBG's ability to present unconventional subject matter with utter conviction has never shone brighter. It's synth-rock with soul."
      — Jesse Hassenger
Bands like They Might Be Giants aren't supposed to make it to the mainstream. They're combination of nasally vocals and candy-apple, new wave melodies are not exactly fit to bump up against, say, the vapid soul of Whitney Houston. "Birdhouse in Your Soul," however, benefited from the early '90s "alt-rock" phase that gripped pop culture, when heretofore obscure outfits like the Flaming Lips and Pavement were getting decent MTV rotation. The song is a perfect introduction to the TMBG sound. Its lyrics are clever, funny and just non-sensical enough to be endearing. More importantly, the song catapulted TMBG, who have always been interesting enough for adults, avant-garde enough for college kids and playful enough for children. It's hard to imagine someone who doesn't at least smile at the story of a nightlight that yens for more responsibility. As their first hit song, it was the introduction of a new standard in geek-rock, one that let other dorks like Weezer through the door, even if the bands' sounds differ. Rock bands could be smart and not necessarily strident. Like Devo before them, TMBG made it cool to be quirky again.
      — Jonathan Messinger

68 SQUEEZE
"Tempted"

Someone's packing; someone's leaving; someone's cheating; and, apparently, there's a foot without a sock. As the narrative streams along like a blinking movie camera, the exact story may not be clear, but we get the gist of it. Instantly recognizable from that one hanging note on the organ intro, "Tempted" draws us in with a steady bass and drum soul groove. And like Brian Wilson's lovely "God Only Knows", under the covers of that divine pop melody are deceptively complex harmonies, a formative challenge to any musician who has ever attempted to play along. Why is this song etched into the annals of pop music? Because after more than two decades, you still can't change the station. Because you always sing along. Because you love to hear those high dangling piano keys. Because you really dig that carousel of vocals on the third verse. Because those drum fills are so simple. And so perfect. Because Elvis Costello is the producer. Because it's just too cool for cats. And yes, because we've all been tempted by the fruit of another. The best blue-eyed soul song ever written and delivered, "Tempted" is the masterpiece of Difford and Tillbrook, the best pure pop song craftsmen from across the pond since the Beatles.
      — David R. Baum

67 BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
"Born in the USA"

Perhaps best known as the song Ronald Reagan almost co-opted as his 1984 re-election campaign anthem, "Born in the U.S.A." is one of the most misunderstood "patriotic" songs ever recorded. The tune that kick-starts Bruce Springsteen's best-selling 1984 album of the same name, "Born in the U.S.A." tells the story of a Vietnam vet who returns stateside unable to find work. Hardly the stuff of anthem, but chalk it up to The Boss's unerring knack (at least in the early- to mid-'80s) for writing a fist-pumping tune about the downtrodden with alarming ease. In Springsteen's hands, the "I was born in the U.S.A."-chorus, with its jangling guitars, comes across as a point of pride, not as the condemnation that closer inspection reveals it to be. A landmark song on a landmark album, and still a bastion on classic rock radio stations across America -- in spite of the fact that countless Americans miss the song's message.
      — Steve Haag

66 ELVIS COSTELLO
"Pump It Up"

Back in 1978, when Elvis unleashed his second album, This Year's Model, things were in an awful state. Radio listeners in the U.S. were being lambasted with songs like "Y.M.C.A.", "Copacabana", and the truly awful "Paradise By the Dashboard Lights". The Sex Pistols fizzled out on their first U.S. tour. Listeners who'd managed to avoid suicide in the early '70s by listening to acts like Bowie and Roxy Music asked, "Is there no uber-rocker who will appear to extricate us from the sheer drivel we are forced to listen to now?" As if on cue, Elvis and his severely rocking band the Attractions appeared to rescue us. "Pump It Up" begins with an atomic salvo of bass and drums flavored by Elvis's guitar chords. Then Steve Na�ve's organ joins in with the irresistible descending riff that launched a thousand pogo dancers and all memories of the lame are obliterated. Listeners may not have caught all the words or known quite what Elvis was talking about, but his passionate delivery made it clear he was talking about something, and that made him stand out. Sounding like the great lost garage band, Elvis and the Attractions announced that they were here to save rock and roll from itself.
      — Marshall Bowden

65 THE BEE GEES
"Stayin' Alive"

Saturday Night Fever, one of the most popular films in America in 1977, opened with a young, pre-Scientology John Travolta walking the streets of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, his steps in perfect sync with the irrepressible beat of this song, which gave disco music -- which was already dying out in the gay club scene that spawned it -- fresh life as the mainstream sound of virile masculinity. The Bee Gees, previously known best for their soft-rock distillations of the Beatles, would forever after be inextricably (and unfairly) linked with the ear-splitting falsetto harmonies they perfected on this multi-platinum hit, whose success ushered in a whole wave of disco-rock hybrids (the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and Rod Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" to name two of the more notorious sellouts). As the song and the film's popularity mutually propelled each other to unprecedented levels of marketplace success, the entertainment industry learned a valuable lesson about cross-marketing; and it still hasn't quit trying to manufacture artificially the organic synergy which fueled the originals.
      — Rob Horning

64 PUBLIC ENEMY
"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"

This is the only straight narrative song on Public Enemy's opus It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and, as such, it best encapsulates the revolutionary rhetoric, storytelling power, and sonic inventiveness of the group. Chuck D's protagonist is in jail, railing against white socio-economic prejudice against African-Americans, both inside the correctional system, and outside in society; he explicitly connects the draft and the imprisonment of blacks with slavery, spitting bullets of knowlege forged both in anger and hope. All the while, he's accompanied by a simply frightening Bomb Squad track: it combines an insiduous piano sample that's as cold as steel, a ticking martial beat as heavy as concrete, and a backwards guitar sample that cuts through the sound like a shiv. Despite the fact that the track also contains the group's worst aspects -- their cartoonish self-mythologizing (check the deus ex machina of P.E.'s security force of S1Ws arriving in the nick of time to save Chuck) and covert misogyny (the only C.O. to get shot is a woman) -- this track dropped like a bomb in 1988, announcing an earth-shattering group of African-American poets as vital as Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka.
      — Anthony Bleach

63 BLONDIE
"Rapture"

"Rapture", off of 1980's Autoamerican, comes right after the high tide of Blondie's success and at the beginning of the band's over-exposure and disintegration. It seems perfect, in retrospect, to celebrate that period of Blondie's career, since they were all about pop irony, tweaking the noses of every genre from disco to reggae to punk. Like Nico, Debbie Harry is an icon of strung-out diva decadence: she's at her best when she's just a bit off. On "Rapture" we hear her deadpan transitions from breathy sensuality to femme-bot menace to rapping queen. And, of course, it's Fab 5 Freddy, and the crazy "man from Mars" video (before MTV even yet existed) that make "Rapture" uncommonly prescient: of the importance of the image to pop music, of rap's crossover from the streets to the mainstream (which wouldn't happen for at least four more years) and of the increasingly commonplace partnering of hip-hop MCs and pop stars. "Walk This Way" wasn't the beginning, friends; "Rapture" showed it where to get off.
      — Margaret Schwartz

62 FUGAZI
"Waiting Room"

For a while there, it seemed like Fugazi would change everything. Not just music itself but also the business and culture of music. Hardcore idealists, Fugazi made music that would never wind up in a car commercial. When "Waiting Room" was recorded, alternative rock was not a radio station format or a way to sell soda. There was independent rock and it wasn't crap. It wasn't the stuff that was everywhere and liked by everyone. It occupied a separate and smaller space but it was so clearly better than the dominant music, change had to come. Fugazi was never a sloppy band, but they sound tighter than usual on "Waiting Room". The rhythm section sounds damn near militant. Ian MacKaye belts out a punk rock anthem, sounding like a man who knows the future. "I'm planning a big surprise / I'm gonna fight for what I wanna be". It was an exciting future we had coming. Personally, I'm still waiting.
      — Mark Dionne

61 NEIL YOUNG
"Hey Hey My My"

When Neil Young wrote a song aimed at Johnny Rotten for his 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, many had already noted the coincidence of punk's birth and Elvis's death, but perhaps no one probed the darker layers of irony like Young. That song, played acoustically as "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" for the first track of the record and electrically as "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" for the last, is a deceptively simple tune housing remarkable complexity. Where other writers saw punk as a much-needed rebirth, Young viewed it as a harbinger of a tiresome cycle. Johnny Rotten was just Elvis with a shorter life span, an improved marketing ploy that had learned that it's better to burn out than to fade away. But the recent punk explosion had visibly affected Young. He seemed to long for a rebirth himself, but on his own terms, not Malcolm McLaren's or David Geffen's. Simultaneously punk and anti-punk, "Hey Hey, My My" found the courage to reject the facile promises of a rebellion renaissance offered by a rock world Young knew to be corrupted beyond repair.
      — Brian James

 

S E A R C H

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A R C H I V E
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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