The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 760 to 751
760. “Family Affair,” Sly & the Family Stone. Songwriter: Sly Stone; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1971. “Family Affair” was the last #1 single for Sly & the Family Stone and the smoldering funk groove underpins a lyric that could be about typical family drama or problems within the musical Family Stone. Sly sounds like he was nudged from a deep sleep, given a handful of downers, then hustled down to the studio for the vocal take. Equipment trivia fans – this was the first song to top the U.S. pop charts that used a drum machine. Tom Briehan of Stereogum, “Sly’s own rubbery bassline anticipated disco, and Billy Preston’s electric-piano flourishes add little accents of gospel ecstasy. Rose Stone only sings four words on the song, and yet her voice, clear and strong, still anchors the song and gives her brother something to orbit around. The song didn’t get to #1 just because it expressed some frustrated generational lost-paradise feeling. It got to #1 because people liked hearing it.”
759. “Jolene,” Dolly Parton. Songwriter: Dolly Parton; #60 pop/#1 country; 1973. The inspiration for “Jolene” wasn’t an actual love triangle or personal jealousy, it came from a ten-year-old autograph seeking fan. Dolly, “She had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes. I said, ‘Well, you’re the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So, what is your name?’ And she said, ‘Jolene.’ And I said, ‘Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.” “Jolene” is lyrically interesting in that Parton has nothing but praise for her assumed romantic rival, and despite the narrator’s paranoia, there is no indication of Jolene’s intentions when it comes to Dolly’s man.
758. “Hello It’s Me,” Todd Rundgren. Songwriter: Todd Rundgren; #5 pop; 1972. Todd Rundgren had established a reputation as a major upcoming figure in pop music in 1972, having been a member of the lathe 1960’s Beatles inspired garage band the Nazz, as well as being a respected producer. The 1972 “Something/Anything?” album marked the peak of his creativity, with Rundgren producing himself and playing all of the instruments on most of the material. Rundgren recorded a beatnik acid version of “Hello It’s Me” with the Nazz in 1968, but reworked his composition for the confessional singer/songwriter mode in 1972. Nice production touches include the jazz influenced saxophone solo and the backing vocal quintet that included Vicki Sue Robinson, who found fame later in the 1970s with “Turn the Beat Around.” Lyrically, it sounds like Todd wants to end a formal relationship, yet keep the door open for friends with benefits perks. “Hello It’s Me” remains the biggest pop hit of Todd Rundgren’s career.
757. “Stayin’ Alive,” The Bee Gees. Songwriters: Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb; #1 pop/#4 R&B; 1977. It was easy to make fun of The Bee Gees in the 1970s – they had the helium enhanced vocals, the cringe worthy vice grip squeezing slacks, and massive piles of hair, perfect for vegemite smuggling. However, there are few moments in pop culture history more memorable than the opening sequence of “Saturday Night Fever” – John Travolta struts down a New York city street like a man who owns the world’s biggest ceramic kumquat factory while the Brothers Gibb pronounce “I’m a woman’s man/No time to talk” in the most frightening falsetto voices ever heard by human ears. Lyrically, the Aussie siblings were smart enough to offset the braggadocio with some self-doubt, giving the listener a chance to dance through their existential struggles. A decade later Barry Gibbs commented on the song, as well as the disco era that came to define his band, “We’d like to dress it up in a white suit and gold chains and set it on fire.”
756. “Need Your Love So Bad,” Little Willie John. Songwriter: John Mertis, Little Willie John; #5 R&B. Little Willie John gives a clinic on soul singing on this 1955 R&B hit. Author Susan Whitall, providing the historical context, “He was still two months shy of this 18th birthday, but Willie infused ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ with a smoky, late night sadness, as if he’d been loving and losing women for decades. Hearing it today, we take the gut-wrenching soul emotion of the vocal for granted, the way it takes the listener into the back rows of the black church, out the back door and to the juke joint in the woods. But in 1955, they weren’t calling this sound soul, not yet. In terms of pop music it was still underground, a unique amalgam of gospel, blues and rhythm & blues bubbling up from the mysterious, unexplored depths of black culture.” From the “All Music Guide to the Blues,” “’Need Your Love So Bad’ contains one of the most intimate, tear-jerking vocals ever caught on tape.”
755. “I Got a Line on You,” Spirit. Songwriter: Randy California; #25 pop; 1968. The hard rock band Spirit formed in Los Angeles in 1967 and quickly received a record contract from producer Lou Adler. They had their only Top 40 hit with “I Got a Line on You,” a song that smartly split the difference between melodic pop and guitar based hard rock. Rock critic Jason Heller, “’I Got a Line on You’ featured harmony galore, straddling the line between the soulful hard rock that was on the rise at the end of the Sixties and the lingering traces of peace-and-love trippiness that still informed California’s supple guitar work. California’s voice is gutsy and melodic, helping to propel the single to success – a little less sophistication, and “I Got a Line on You” could’ve been a Steppenwolf mega-hit.” Spirit’s influence emerged in the next few decades as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” had elements of the Spirit song “Taurus” and Cheap Trick’s 1988 #1 pop hit “The Flame” was a rewrite of their 1971 single “Nature’s Way.”
754. “A Lover’s Question,” Clyde McPhatter. Songwriters: Brook Benton, Jimmy T. Williams; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1958. North Carolina native Clyde McPhatter took his church trained soprano into the world of R&B music during the 1950s, singing for Billy Ward and the Dominoes (fronting the unit on “Have Mercy Baby,” “Do Something for Me,” and “The Bells,” one of the oddest hit records of any era). He was also the lead singer for the original version of The Drifters, before they became a crossover pop sensation, performing on the major R&B hits “Money Honey,” “Such a Night,” and “What’cha Gonna Do.” After a tour in the Army, he became a solo act, having his biggest hit with the finger snapping, doo wop inspired ballad “A Lover’s Question,” a song about romantic insecurity. Rock critic Bruce Eder on McPhatter’s influence, “McPhatter was idolized by Black audiences as few singers before or since ever were, and helped define rhythm & blues and its transformation into soul.” He was described by blues historian Robert Palmer as “probably the most influential black singer of the mid-50’s.” Sadly, he could not adjust to life after fame and drank himself to death at the age of 39.
753. “Cannonball,” Breeders. Songwriter: Kim Deal; #44 pop; 1993. Talk about a left field hit, “Cannonball” is filled with smart hooks, tempo changes, memorable lines, and captures a vibe of happiness in a bottle (or from a bong). It’s the “Walking on Sunshine” of the alt-guitar era. Pop Matters on this bubblegum punk tune that feels like a brilliantly executed high school prank, “’Cannonball’ is loaded with impudence, exuberance and mischievous charm.” Kim Deal reflecting on the song’s commercial potential, “Did we record a song that opened with me saying, ‘Check 1-2,’ and then loads of vocal feedback from my brother’s harmonica mike, and think, ‘This is destined for radio?’ That was the sort of thing that didn’t get you played on the radio then. We thought no one would play it.” Nitsuh Abebe of Pitchfork on the results, “’Cannonball’ sounds a little like (Kim) Deal bursting with a billion great ideas that couldn’t be neglected anymore.”
752. “At the Crossroads,” The Sir Douglas Quintet. Songwriter: Doug Sahm; Did Not Chart; 1969. Doug Sahm was a mad scientist who took elements of garage rock, Tejano, country, blues, and R&B to develop his own specialized, loose, freewheeling style of rock ‘n’ roll. A 1965 Corpus Christi pot bust ended the original version of The Sir Douglas Quintet, shortly after they found pop success with “She’s About a Mover.” Frontman Doug Sahm relocated to San Francisco, perhaps finding the conservative Texas culture too stifling at that time. A reformed version of the band hit the pop charts with “Mendocino” in early 1969, resulting in an album release with the same title. The bluesy “At the Crossroads” is the quintessential Texas hippie breakup song, where Doug gets wigged out and succumbs to his free bird instincts. The lyric “You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul” is often quoted, has never been correct, but remains an admirable aspirational vibe.
751. “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit (Jim Henson). Songwriters: Paul Williams, Kenny Ascher; #25 pop; 1979. The Muppets, an advanced form of puppetry, were designed in 1955 by Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog being the original and signature Muppets character. After working for several years on “Sesame Street,” Henson developed “The Muppet Show,” a syndicated comedy sketch variety series in 1976 and “The Muppet Movie” was released in 1979. The film’s introductory song about Kermit’s big adventure isn’t a novelty number, “Rainbow Connection” is a beautifully crafted ballad about hope and possibility. Songwriter Paul Williams, “Kermit, he’s like ‘every frog.’ He’s the Jimmy Stewart of frogs. So how do we show that he’s a thinking frog, and that he has an introspective soul, and all that good stuff? We looked at his environment, and his environment is water and air – and light. And it just seemed like it would be a place where he would see a rainbow. But we also wanted to show that he would be on this spiritual path, examining life, and the meaning of life.” “Rainbow Connection” has been covered by Judy Collins, The Carpenters, Sarah McLachlan, Willie Nelson, The Dresdon Dolls, Jason Mraz, Justin Timberlake, The Dixie Chicks, and many other artists, proving to be a lasting inspiration for the lovers, the dreams, and me. (Especially me, this is “our song” for my wife and I).