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The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 10 to 2


10. “Smells Like Teen Spirt,” Nirvana. Songwriters: Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl; #5 pop; 1991. You say you want a revolution? In 1991, it took Nirvana less than five minutes to make classic rock and hair bands irrelevant, to make the long ignored spirit of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols a staple of mainstream radio. I remember the first time I heard “Teen Spirit,” watching MTV in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania hotel room. I was gobsmacked by the power of the music and, perhaps even more shocked, that it was being played on a mainstream media outlet. Kurt Cobain on his inspiration, “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” You can make any interpretation of the lyrics that you want, what mattered was Cobain’s voice – a combination of pain and confusion that sounded like an open wound. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” unleased the frustrations of a young man who understood that life is a rigged game and both taking it too seriously or not serious enough are losing propositions, leading to the conclusion, “Oh, well…whatever…never mind.” Former band manager Danny Goldberg, “’With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/ Here we are now, entertain us.’ It was rock ‘n’ roll, and kind of an ironic commentary on rock ‘n’ roll, at the same time. That was the genius of the song: It combined a fierce commentary on shallowness while still having a mass-appeal musicality.” Producer Butch Vig, “The first day I met Nirvana (with drummer Dave Grohl) was in the rehearsal space in North Hollywood. The first song they played was ‘Teen Spirit.’ It was the first time I saw Dave Grohl drum and his playing just floored me. I remember just pacing around the room thinking, ‘This song is fantastic.’ Kurt had that dichotomy of punk rage and alienation but also this vulnerable pop sensibility. In ‘Teen Spirit’ a lot of that vulnerability is in his singing, in the tone of his voice. I went into the studio (after the record was released) and there were all these messages on the answering machine from people I didn’t know, like, ‘Dude, I’m a radio programmer in Atlanta and blah blah blah, we just heard ‘Teen Spirit’ and it’s going to blow the doors off rock ‘n’ roll!’” Journalist Al Horner in 2014, “It encapsulated not just a generation, but a feeling that had never been captured so truly in song before – a malaise for the establishment, a nothingness at an increasingly corporate world. Which is why it remains so powerful, and why, here we are now, still celebrating it today.”

 

 


9. “A Day in the Life,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; Did Not Chart; 1967. Author Nicholas Dawidoff, “’A Day in the Life’ is my idea of a perfect song. It is the epitome of The Beatles’ master building, of fitting stone upon stone, each section troweled together with such ingenuity and care that upon completion the whole thing feels seamless, a structure not built at all, but a whole that simply was. Some of Lennon’s songwriting contemporaries were lifting their lyrics from old blues or from overheard conversations in bars. That Lennon extracted his details from the daily throng of public images and then transposed them with his own everyday experiences means the song is his life. I can’t think of a popular song that references more different forms of art—photography, film, literature, architecture. In that respect, ‘A Day in the Life’ is autobiography as interior still life, a person selecting representative images to show you how he experiences the world.” George Martin, “John’s voice was the kind of thing that would send shivers down your spine. If you hear those opening chords with the guitar and piano, and then his voice comes in, ‘I heard the news today, oh boy.’ It’s just so evocative of that time. He always played his songs to me on the guitar and I would sit on a stool as he strummed. The orchestral section was Paul’s idea. We put two pieces of songs together that weren’t connected in any way. Then we had that 24-bars-of-nothing in between. I had to write a score, but in the climax, I gave each instrument different little waypoints at each bar, so they would know roughly where they should be when they were sliding up. Just so they didn’t reach the climax too quickly. With ‘A Day in the Life,’ I wondered whether we were losing our audience and I was scared. But I stopped being scared when I played it to the head of Capitol Records in America and he was gob smacked. He said, ‘That’s fantastic.’ And of course, it was.” Author Colin Fleming, “A 40-piece (orchestra) unit recorded their part – a glissando to sound like the end of a Wagnerian world – on February 10th. The classical musicians were given costume pieces – and plastic nipples – to don, thus lightening the mood, as Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Donovan, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful and others cavorted at the session. Martin and McCartney wanted each musician to begin as quietly as possible and end at what was tantamount to a musical orgasm.” George Martin reflecting decades later, “Part of me said ‘We’re being a bit self-indulgent here.’ The other part of me said ‘It’s bloody marvelous!’”

 
 


8. “Like A Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; #2 pop; 1965. Bumping and grinding song and dance man Bob Dylan shook up the world of pop music in 1965 with “Like a Rolling Stone,” which shocked Columbia Records by peaking at #2 on the pop charts, one rung behind “Help!” by the Beatles. The lyrics are Dylan’s typically impenetrable thoughts about chrome horses and diplomats, but primarily reflect an intense feeling of anger/disgust at some unknown target. Rock critic James Gerald, “One of the most self-righteous and eloquent indictments ever committed to wax, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ filters Bob Dylan’s indignation for pseudo-bohemian sixties scenesters through his legendary wit. If Dylan¹s first incarnation was as a protest singer, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ signals the era of Dylan as court jester/verbal assassin.” Bruce Springsteen, “The first time that I heard Bob Dylan I was in the car with my mother, and we were listening to, I think, maybe WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind, from ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ I knew that I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean, and it sounded somehow simultaneously young and adult, and I ran out and I bought the single. Dylan was – he was a revolutionary, man, the way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind. And he showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and the talent to expand a pop song until it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound. He broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and he changed the face of rock and roll forever and ever.” Bob Dylan in 1966, explaining how his most acclaimed song started as a poem, “It was ten pages long. It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion.” Organist Al Kooper on the recording session, “There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganized, totally punk. It just happened.” Rolling Stone magazine, “No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.”

 

 


7. “Rock & Roll,” Velvet Underground. Songwriter: Lou Reed; Did Not Chart; 1970. The New York based Velvet Underground released their debut album in 1967 and took the genre to places it had never been. They expanded the boundaries of what bands could do lyrically and sonically within a rock music context. John Cale’s electric viola created a frequent eerie edge to the proceedings, while Lou Reed straightforwardly, almost in a deadpan voice, delivered lyrics about drugs, violence, and homosexuality. From their 1970 “Loaded” album, “Rock & Roll” is simply the best song ever about the subject, recognizing the music as a form of personal salvation. Lou Reed, “’Rock & Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, I would have no idea that there was life on this planet. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did that.” Lester Bangs, “They should make ‘Rock & Roll’ the theme song of the Voice of America – the Cold War would be won, finished in a single blast of fine, fine music that would have all of Eastern Europe dancing in the streets for sheer joy. Because if America has a gift to give, this is it: ‘Their lives were saved by – Rock and Roll.’”
 

 


6. “London Calling,” The Clash. Songwriters: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones; Did Not Chart; 1980. Being labelled by their record company is “The Only Band That Matters” was rather ridiculous hyperbole, but The Clash tried to live up to that assessment with the 1980’s “London Calling,” arguably the best album of the decade. On the title track, Joe Strummer surveys the damage to London, a city reduced to rubble by a nuclear error, and notes that he’s no savoir, as “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” Rock critic Billy Altman, “’London Calling’ is so powerful that one is utterly drained physically as Morse Code S.O.S. fades with Joe Strummer’s wail.” Author Sasha Frere-Jones, “If you can listen to it without a chilling burst of immortality, there is a layer between you and the world.” Joe Strummer, “Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realized that you either became a power or you were crushed.” Rolling Stone, “When they recorded the song, the Clash – British punk’s most political and uncompromising band – were without management and sinking in debt. Around them, Britain was suffocating in crisis: soaring unemployment, racial conflict, widespread drug use. ‘We felt that we were struggling,’ Joe Strummer said, ‘about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails.
 

 

5. “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #8 pop/#2 R&B; 1958. Depending on your source, “Johnny B. Goode” was (a) penned as a tribute pianist Johnnie Johnson or (b) it was Berry writing his own rag to riches bio or (c) it was a combination of the two. The “Goode” is a reference to Berry’s childhood home, which was located at 2520 Goode Avenue. Half a century after “Johnny B. Goode” was released, “Rolling Stone” magazine named the 1958 #8 pop hit as “The Greatest Guitar Song of All Time.” Author Alan Light of the New York Times, “If rock ’n’ roll has a national anthem, this would be it. The stinging introduction set a standard that every rock guitarist still chases. The story, a semi-autobiographical rags-to-riches tale, is a classic articulation of the American Dream.” Musician/author Cub Koda, “’Johnny B. Goode’ is the Horatio Alger story of rock & roll, a message so basic that the song has become the inspiration for every kid who ever wanted to be in a rock & roll band or become a rock & roll star.” Robert Christgau, “The definitive guitar anthem.” Marty McFly, “Your kids are going to love it.” Many, many others, “Go, Johnny, go!”
 

 

4. “Gimme Shelter,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters; Mick Jaggers/Keith Richards; Did Not Chart; 1969. John Lennon may have been chanting “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969, but The Stones were realists who understood the counterculture dreams of the 1960’s were dead and buried by the end of the decade. No longer chasing the self-actualization of “Satisfaction,” they just wanted a goddamn safe haven on “Gimme Shelter. Hunter S. Thompson reflecting on that era, “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Mick Jagger, “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it … That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.” Keith Richards, “I had been sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black and an incredible monsoon came down. It was just people running about looking for shelter — that was the germ of the idea. We went further into it until it became, you know, rape and murder are ‘just a shot away.’” Seeking a duet partner, a pregnant Merry Clayton crawled out of bed to a midnight recording session. Author Michael Parker on her contribution, “Merry Clayton pulls off the unfathomable: She steals a song—not just a song, but one so powerful that it is routinely, rightly or not, credited with pronouncing the death of the flower-power Sixties—from Mick bloody Jagger. She opens her mouth and heart and out pours truthful, beautiful fire. When she sings her last ‘it’s just a shot away,’ her voice cracks slightly on the ‘shot,’ and on the final ‘murder,’ her highest note breaks so painfully that someone in the background—sounds like Mick to me—salutes this moment with a congratulatory ‘Woo!’” Mick Jagger on one of the unintended legacies of the song, “It’s been used a lot to evoke natural disaster.”

 

 


3. “Waterloo Sunset,” The Kinks. Songwriter: Ray Davies; Did Not Chart; 1967. It is not difficult to find superlatives regarding “Waterloo Sunset,” Ray Davies’ unusual song about finding happiness in love shared by others. Robert Christgau, “The most beautiful song in the English language.” Pete Townshend, “A masterpiece.” Musician Rhett Miller, “The greatest song ever written by a human being.” Ray Davies, on his inspiration, “It came to me first as a statement about the death of Merseybeat, but I realized that Waterloo was a very significant place in my life. I was in St. Thomas’ Hospital when I was really ill as a child, and I looked out on the river. I went to Waterloo every day to go to college as well. The song was also about being taken to the Festival of Britain with my mum and dad. I remember them taking me by the hand, looking at the big Skylon tower, and saying it symbolized the future. That, and then walking by the Thames with my first wife and all the other dreams that we had. And also about my sisters, and about the world I wanted them to have. The two characters in the song, Terry and Julie, are to do with the aspirations of my sisters’ generation, who grew up during the Second World War and missed out on the ’60s.” Dave Davies on the guitar sound, “We spent a lot of time trying to get a different guitar sound, to get a more unique feel for the record. In the end we used a tape-delay echo, but it sounded new because nobody had done it since the 1950s. I remember Steve Marriott of the Small Faces came up and asked me how we’d got that sound. We were almost trendy for a while.” Author Rob Jovanovic, “’Waterloo Sunset’ is perhaps the quintessential London song. With it, Ray perfectly married melody with simple yet evocative lyrics to paint a memorable panorama. If Davies had achieved his teenage ambition to become a filmmaker, he could not have hoped to capture the scene more vividly.” It should also be noted that the harmony singing by Ray, Dave Davies, Ray’s wife Rasa, and bassist Pete Quaife is remarkably gorgeous. Quaife on the recording, “When we had finished, we went home and, strangely, didn’t say a word to anyone! We KNEW that we had a hit on our hands and we were content with that.” Ray Davies on the downside of such a triumph, “I had achieved everything I set out to do creatively and I was 22 years old.”

 

 

2. “Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley. Songwriters: Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller; #1 pop/#1 country/#2 R&B; 1956. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, one of the most important songwriting teams in pop music history, were mere teenagers when they wrote “Hound Dog,” specifically penned for southern blues artist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Thornton’s growling vocal and the lyrics about sexual politics had an immediate impact. The song was a #1 R&B hit and the Rufus Thomas answer song “Bear Cat” was released only two weeks after “Hound Dog” hit the market. “Hound Dog” was so popular that at least ten other artists covered the song before Presley’s 1956 release. Presley’s take was less overtly sexual, but still captured an electrifying rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Released as the flip side of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog” was another hat trick for Elvis – #1 pop, #1 R&B, and #1 country. Rolling Stone, “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.” Author Patrick Humphries, “Even now, nearly half a century on, ‘Hound Dog’ still sounds thrilling – the combination of Elvis’ raucous vocal, Scotty Moore’s electric guitar and D.J. Fontana’s machine-gun drumming made sure of that. The symbolism was clear. Elvis was the harbinger of something wild.” Mike Stoller’s reaction to the Elvis version, “I was disappointed. It just sounded terribly nervous, too fast, too white. But you know, after it sold seven or eight million records it started to sound better.”

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