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The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 50 to 41

 

 

50. “Celebrated Summer,” Hüsker Dü. Songwriter: Bob Mould: Did Not Chart; 1985. The Minneapolis hardcore trio Hüsker Dü moved to a more melodic approach on their 1985 album “New Day Rising.” The sonic dynamics of “Celebrated Summer,” with its aggressive guitar work that gives way to a wistful acoustic break, would influence later bands such as the Pixies and Nirvana. Also, the reflective lyrics are quite apt for a band whose name means “Do You Remember” in Danish. Rock critic Stevie Chick, “”Celebrated Summer’ found Hart’s knitting-machine drums powering a whirlwind of fuzz-toned major chords, as Mould waxed nostalgic about summers past: ‘Getting drunk out on the beach, or playing in a band/And getting out of school meant getting out of hand.’ Mould being Mould, there’s a lining of darkness lending the song an edge (‘Summer barely had a snowball’s chance in hell’), but the song’s fusion of punk dynamics, poignancy and pop songcraft gave him a model he’s pursued ever since.” Blogger Jim Connelly, “The guitar solo in ‘Celebrated Summer’ topped anything that Greg Ginn or Billy Zoom or East Bay Ray had come up with, and was a definite precursor to J. Mascis’ destruction in ‘Freak Scene.’ With the man himself singing ‘summer’ in the background, Mould’s solo in ‘Celebrated Summer’ roars and gallops and shimmers with an almost feral beauty and then halfway through it jumps out of the speakers and dances around the room for a while until the song stops and reins it back in.” On a personal level, no band meant more to me during the 1980’s than Hüsker Dü. They were my poverty level Prozac.

49. “I Saw Her Standing There,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #14 pop; 1963. Paul McCartney on writing with John Lennon, “Those early days were really cool, just sussing each other out, and realizing that we were good. You just realize from what he was feeding back. Often it was your song or his song, it didn’t always just start from nothing. Someone would always have a little germ of an idea. So I’d start off with (singing) ‘She was just 17, she’d never been a beauty queen’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh no, that’s useless’ and ‘You’re right, that’s bad, we’ve got to change that.’ Then changing it into a really cool line: ‘You know what I mean.’ ‘Yeah, that works.’” Author Barry Lenser, “It’s only appropriate that the opening song of the Beatles’ debut album ‘Please Please Me’ starts with an iconic moment. Paul McCartney’s lively count-in (‘one, two, three, fahhh’) puts ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ energetically into motion, and what follows are two-plus minutes of joyous pop electricity. Several of the touchstones of early-period Beatles are at work: jaunty riffs, unison vocals, high-pitched ‘woohs’, and, most delightfully, hand claps (all of which reappear with frenzied effect on the album closer, the untouchable ‘Twist and Shout’). The songcraft is economized and straightforward. Paul’s bass line tugs and struts along, and blends with John’s rhythm guitar rather seamlessly. Ringo offers a simple-sounding percussive shuffle while George’s guitar work, especially his erratic solo, reveals a burgeoning talent that still isn’t sure how to creatively occupy all its designated space. Combined, it’s the sound of a spirited young band that wants to tweak and refine the templates of rock ‘n’ roll into something distinctly its own.” McCartney later noted that his bass playing was an exact replication of the notes from the Chuck Berry number “Talkin’ About You.”

48. “All Day and All of the Night,” The Kinks. Songwriter: Ray Davies; #7 pop; 1964. The Kinks replicated the proto-punk power chords of “You Really Got Me” on “All Day and All of the Night,” while Ray crooned about a romantic infatuation that bordered on stalking. The early Kinks introduced a raw, aggressive guitar wound that had never been heard before on radio and would serve as a major influence on hard rock over the next few decades. Davies has referred to “All Day” as “a neurotic song – youthful, obsessive and sexually possessive.” Author Nick Halsted, “It begins with another bare riff, slower and spare than ‘You Really Got Me.’ But now Ray’s desire for a girl is worldly, adult. He sings with the happy leer of knowing he’ll get her, not the teen frustration a hit’s let him outgrow. This time Ray’s encouragement – ‘Oh, come on!’ – is gleeful. Dave’s response is a gremlin’s cartoon yowl, and a solo which jerks and clambers into a chaotic climax. ‘All Day and All of the Night’ is overall more heavy, more metallic. ‘You Really Got Me’s prototype had been streamlined and souped up.” Rock critic/terminal misanthrope Mike Saunders, “The Kinks started out by being raunchier than any group in history. ‘You Really Got Me,’ ‘All Day and All of the Night,’ ‘I Need You,’ and ‘Till the End of the Day’ were truly the Kingsmen unleashed, and for my money more thrillingly raucous records have never been recorded.”

47. “Rock and Roll,” Led Zeppelin. Songwriters: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, John Bonham; #47 pop; 1972. Based on the drum intro to Little Richard’s “Keep A Knockin’,” Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” is one of their most direct and powerful efforts. The band bashes out a standard 12-bar blues progression, while Robert Plant screams about his physical needs and references 1950’s rock tunes, including “The Stroll” and “Book of Love.” Meanwhile, Jimmy Page proved that he was just as effective playing within the context of a song as he was when demanding the spotlight. Author Bill Wyman, “Page’s tone has a depth and a fullness no other band could match. Note how, in contrast to the severe crispness of most of his guitar riffs, here he lets the chords reverberate. The result: an utterly anachronistic nostalgic hymn to the 1950s.” Robert Plant in 1988, “I was finally in a really successful band, and we felt it was time for actually kicking ass. It wasn’t an intellectual thing, ’cause we didn’t have time for that – we just wanted to let it all come flooding out. It was a very animal thing, a hellishly powerful thing, what we were doing.”

46. “Who Do You Love?,” Bo Diddley. Songwriter: Elias McDaniel; Did Not Chart; 1956. Rhythmic genius Bo Diddley (nee Elias Bates) was born in Mississippi, but raised in Chicago, where he began his music career as a blues performer. Bo Diddley, eschewing his famous namesake beat, sounds more like Chuck Berry than Muddy Waters on the simultaneously dark and hysterical “Who Do You Love?” Diddley kicks off the song with one of the rock ‘n’ roll’s most memorable moments of braggadocio, proclaiming, “I walk 47 miles of barbwire/I wear a cobra snake for a necktie.” He sounds somewhat like a sly, dark alley predator making a demand for his affection and it may be a clever accident or genius that “Who Do” is a homonym for “hoodoo,” considering Diddley’s references to a “tombstone hand” and a “rattlesnake whip.” Diddley, on his theme, “I’m telling this chick how bad I am, so she can go tell the cat she’s hanging with, ‘this dude is something else.’ That’s what it kinda meant, cat ridin’ rattlesnakes and kissin’ boa constrictors and stuff.” From the altrockchick website on the song’s lack of commercial success, “While the culture had reluctantly expanded to tolerate rock ‘n’ roll, most songs by those classified as rock artists were rather tame concerning the major topic of interest of the targeted teenage audience: how to attract members of the opposite sex. While you can imagine a teenage boy crooning ‘Love Me Tender’ to his adoring sweetheart as they floated down the tunnel of love, he wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what to do with Bo Diddley’s hyperbolic display of machismo.”

45. “Stand by Me,” Ben E. King. Songwriters: Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; #4 pop/#1 R&B; 1960. “Stand by Me,” Ben E. King’s deathless request for romantic devotion, was a smash in its original form and later returned to the pop charts by John Lennon, the country charts by Mickey Gilley, and the R&B charts by Maurice White. This strength of this song cuts across all demographics and genres. Mike Stoller, “Ben E. had the beginnings of a song—both words and music. He worked on the lyrics together with Jerry (Lieber), and I added elements to the music, particularly the bass line. To some degree, it’s based on a gospel song called ‘Lord Stand By Me.’ I have a feeling that Jerry and Ben E. were inspired by it. Ben, of course, had a strong background in church music.” Jerry Leiber, “Years later, after ‘Stand by Me’ was a #1 R&B smash, after it was a Top Five pop hit, after it had been covered by everyone and his mother, after Rob Reiner had made a hit movie using the title and featuring the song, a journalist asked me what made it so popular. ‘Mike’s bass line,’ I said. ‘There’s got to be more to it than that. What about the lyrics? The vocal?’ ‘The lyrics are good, King’s vocal is great. But Mike’s bass line pushed the song into the land of immortality. Believe me – it’s the bass line.’” Author Spencer Kornhaber, “The song’s historical and aesthetic significance can’t be understated. The lyrics work as a testament to friendship, or to romance, or to broader social solidarity. Its elemental power comes from the way it transforms a human relationship into something cosmic, apocalyptic, essential.” Music historian Neil McCormick, “(King’s) voice occupies a transitional space somewhere between the easy flowing soul of Sam Cooke and the more raw throated emotionalism that would arrive with Otis Redding. King’s relaxed delivery meant he never sounded like he was trying too hard yet he packed quite a punch all the same, feeling bristled through every note and he had a quality of conviction that is the most precious talent any singer could hope for.”

44. “September Gurls,” Big Star. Songwriter: Alex Chilton; Did Not Chart; 1974. There was always a feeling of unrequited love with Big Star, both in the sense of the adoring audience their music so richly deserved and couldn’t find, and in their tales of romantic angst. “September Gurls” is beauty and heartbreak, poignancy and elation, teeming with the highs and lows of teen emotion that power pop was created to articulate. The guitars and Alex Chilton ache with impeccable exquisiteness. Douglas Wolk of Time magazine, “Big Star exemplified power pop’s ideal of stringing together crystalline guitar hooks and creamy harmonies in the context of profound emotional darkness. “September Gurls’ is the group’s high point, an oblique but thrilling evocation of romantic ache. What are ‘September girls’ and ‘December boys’? Chilton shows us the answer, rather than telling us — he articulates every spiky, tingling guitar note he plays and pushes his voice so high, it trembles.” Chilton on his songwriting approach, “I really loved the mid ’60s British pop music, all two and a half minutes long, really appealing songs. So I’ve always aspired to that same format, that’s what I like.”

43. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye. Songwriters: Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1968. Barrett Strong on his return to Motown during the mid-1960s, “I was listening to the radio and I heard the Temptations sing ‘My Girl,’ and I said, ‘Man, they’re doing my kind of music now. I want to go back. Now what do I have to take back?’ I had this song title that had been in my mind a long time, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’ I said, ‘Nobody’s ever written a song about this.’ So I sat down at the piano and came up with the bass line.” The song had been a #2 pop hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967. Gaye’s version was released as an album track, but according to Berry Gordy, “The DJs played it so much off the album we had to release it as a single.” Marvin Gaye, “Norman (Whitfield) had this whole new arrangement worked out and it came out pretty good. I simply took Norman’s direction. I was reaching for notes that made my veins bulge.” Music critic Jason Ankeny, “Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is Motown’s greatest record. Even obscured by years of oldies radio overkill and Big Chill nostalgia it retains a hypnotic power unmatched by any of the label’s other classics, articulating the turmoil and anguish of a soul torn apart at the seams with a clarity unmatched in the annals of popular music. On its surface a desperate plea to salvage a relationship gone terribly wrong, ‘Grapevine’ progressively probes much deeper to convey complete emotional free-fall: haunted by lies, taunted by gossip and shattered by loss, Gaye’s torment is palpable, and his performance — the signature sophistication and elegance of his voice ravaged by fear and doubt — is devastating.”

42. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #1 pop; 1965. The famous/often told tale is that Keith Richards woke up from a dream with the riff to “Satisfaction” in his head, put it on a tape recorder, then went back to bed. More cynical observers have opined that he took the horn arrangement from Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” and played it on guitar. Richards on the guitar sound, “It was the first (fuzztone box) Gibson made. I was screaming for more distortion: This riff’s really gotta hang hard and long, and we burnt the amps up and turned the shit up, and it still wasn’t right. And then Ian Stewart went around the corner to Eli Wallach’s Music City or something and came around with a distortion box. Try this. It was as off-hand as that. It was just from nowhere. I never got into the thing after that, either. It had a very limited use, but it was just the right time for that song.” Musician Steve Van Zandt, “It’s one of the earliest examples of Dylan influencing the Stones and the Beatles — the degree of cynicism, and the idea of bringing more personal lyrics from the folk and blues tradition into popular music.” Mick Jagger, “It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band.” Keith Richards, “I hear ‘Satisfaction’ in ‘Jumping Jack Flash.’ I hear it in half of the songs that the Stones have done.”

41. “In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett. Songwriters: Wilson Pickett, Steve Cropper; #21 pop/#1 R&B; 1965. Aretha Franklin, “Wilson Pickett was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. He’d sing off the melody, but it was on. He would go into what you call a ‘squall’ – a scream that might not be in the key of the song, but it worked.” Steve Cropper was inspired by a lyric from Wilson Pickett’s days as a singer for The Falcons to write “In the Midnight Hour” and he didn’t overthink the guitar intro. Cropper, “I say in my shows that playing the guitar is real simple, you just follow the dots – the dots on neck on every guitar are in the same place. That’s how I came up with the intro for this. They go, ‘It couldn’t be that simple,’ then all of them go home and get their guitars out and go, ‘Wow, it is!’” Jerry Wexler contributed to the song, which was written at the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was later assassinated. Wexler, “I was shaking my booty to a groove made popular by the Larks’ ‘The Jerk,’ a mid-Sixties hit. The idea was to push the second beat while holding back the fourth.” Cropper in his inimitable Stax speak, “This was the way the kids were dancing; they were putting the accent on two. Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.” Jerry Wexler on Wicked Pickett’s vocals, “There was something about those records and Wilson’s voice — those were some of the funkiest, deepest-grooving, in-the-pocket recordings I ever heard. The thing about Wilson was he was just a great screamer, but he did it with control. James Brown would scream and it was a scream, but Wilson could scream notes. His voice was powerful, like a buzz saw, but it wasn’t ever out of his control, it was always melodic.”

 

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