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The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century 90 to 81



90. “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen. Songwriter: Bruce Springsteen; Did Not Chart; 1975. “Thunder Road” is one of the best demonstrations of the prowess of Springsteen and his E Street Band, beginning with a simple piano and harmonica intro, then building dramatically to the theme of the pursuit of love. Springsteen switches from playful to determined as he pleads for commitment while being pushed and encouraged by the rising swirl of the music. The Boss, “There is something about the melody of ‘Thunder Road’ that just suggests a new day, it suggest morning, it suggests something opening up.” Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers on the lead track of the “Born to Run” album, “’Thunder Road’ was like the opening action scene, setting the pace for what was to be an amazing adventure.”

89. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Hank Williams. Songwriter: Hank Williams; #43 country; released in 1949 and peaked on the country charts in 1966. On “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Hank paints a picture of complete and utter bleakness – a world so deprived of hope that death might by the only escape. The slow pace of the music and sparse instrumentation punctuates the feeling of not just solitude, but of being completely emotionally gutted. Elvis once stated it was “probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard.” Bob Dylan, “Even at a young age, I identified with him. I didn’t have to experience anything that Hank did to know what he was singing about. I’d never heard a robin weep, but could imagine it and it made me sad.” Williams, sometimes known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare,” chose his words carefully. Check out the verbs – whine, crawl, hide, and weep.

88. “Shangri-La,” The Kinks. Songwriter: Ray Davies; Did Not Chart; 1969. A centerpiece of The Kinks’ 1969 album “Arthur: (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire),” “Shangri-La’ is an epic social commentary about confusing material contentment with happiness and accepting the limitations/mediocrity of middle-class life because no other options exist. The music is suitably claustrophobic, and the lyrics conclude, “You need not worry, you need not care/You can’t go anywhere.” Dave Davies, “Ray was writing fantastic, sensitive words that were so relevant to what was going on – better than any politician. I was really surprised at the response we got to ‘Shangri-La,’ because I thought it was going to be a massive, massive hit.” Ray Davies thought his intent was misunderstood, telling John Mendelssohn in 1970, “They think we’re running people down when in fact we’re just trying to state a few little things – if anything, taking the side of those people. That’s the way I always do it. I always try to take the side of the person I’m writing about. But a lot of people still see it as us taking a swipe at them.”

87. “Life During Wartime,” Talking Heads. Songwriter: David Byrne; #80 pop; 1979. During the 1970s, New York City wasn’t viewed as the warm tourist destination that it is today, many sections of the city were rotting from crime and urban decay. David Byrne took some of the ugly realities of city life (“I was thinking about Baader-Meinhof, Patty Hearst, Tompkins Square”) and projected them into a peanut butter hoarding, paranoid terrorist fantasy. The anxious delivery and sharp funk groove gave the song a dramatic tension that rose well above the lyrical concerns about Big Apple nightclubs. Feel free to prefer the 1984 live version from “Stop Making Sense” to the original single. David Byrne’s thoughts on the phrase “this ain’t no disco,” “Remember when they would build bonfires of Donna Summer records? Well, we liked some disco music! It’s called ‘dance music’ now. Some of it was radical, camp, silly, transcendent and disposable. So it was funny that we were sometimes seen as the flag-bearers of the anti-disco movement.”

86. “Paint It Black,” Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #1 pop; 1966. There is perhaps no darker 1960’s song this side of the Velvet Underground than “Paint It Black.” Mick Jagger on the theme of death and depression, “It’s been done before. It’s not an original thought by any means. It all depends on how you do it.” Keith Richards, “What’s amazing about that one for me is the sitar. Also, the fact that we cut it as a comedy track. Bill was playing an organ, doing a takeoff of our first manager (Eric Easton) who started his career in show business as an organist in a cinema pit. We’d been doing it with funky rhythms and it hadn’t worked and he started playing it like this and everybody got behind it. It’s a two-beat, very strange. Brian (Jones) playing the sitar makes it a whole other thing.” Music historian Richie Unterberger, “The principal riff of ‘Paint It Black’ was played on a sitar by Brian Jones and qualifies as perhaps the most effective use of the Indian instrument in a rock song. The exotic twang was a perfect match for the dark, mysterious Eastern-Indian melody, which sounded a little like a soundtrack to an Indian movie hijacked into hyperdrive.” Ian Astbury of The Cult, “What an incredible comment on the late 20th century. They were smart enough to realize that all the institutions you were supposed to look up to had begun to crumble. I’m always more interested in the darker aspects of the Sixties, and for me the Stones captured that better than anyone else, especially that lascivious sexual power. The Stones really tapped into the blackness, the carcass of late Sixties society that was dying. On this track they had that urban voodoo sound down brilliantly.”

85. “Up on the Roof,” The Drifters. Songwriters: Gerry Goffin, Carole King; #5 pop/#4 R&B; 1963. Gerry Goffin and Carole King found the perfect destination for solitude, reflection, and rejuvenation on “Up on the Roof.” Gerry Goffin, “Carole came up with the melody in the car – an a cappella melody. I said, ‘How about a place to be alone?’ She says, ‘My secret place.’ So the song was originally called ‘My Secret Place.’ I said, ‘No, that’s no good. How about ‘Up on the Roof’? It was imaginary – maybe something that I copped out of ‘West Side Story.’” Charlie Thomas of the Drifters on Carole King’s studio contributions, “Carole used to hang in there with us tough. She used to pound down. She wasn’t no hard woman – a girl, at her age. But she played the piano and it was amazing the songs she gave us.” Author David Freeland, ‘Up on the Roof’ remains one of the most enduring songs of the latter-day Tin Pan Alley period if only for its lushness of melody and lyrical sophistication. ‘At night the stars put on a show for free,’ lead singer Rudy Lewis intones, with a sweeping romanticism that underscores the poetry of the words, ‘and darling, you can share it all with me.’ The lyrics come on like an invitation, in subtle acknowledgment of the longstanding Tin Pan Alley goal of reaching the widest range of listeners possible.”

84. “The Kids Are Alright,” The Who. Songwriter: Pete Townshend; Did Not Chart; 1965. “The Kids Are Alright” is simple, yet captivating. The narrator is magnanimous, the melody is indelible, the background vocals are perfectly arranged and performed. Pete Townshend in 2000, “When I wrote this song I was nothing but a kid, trying to work out right and wrong through all the things I did. I was kind of practicing with my life. I was kind of taking chances in a marriage with my wife. I took some stuff and I drank some booze. There was almost nothing that I didn’t try to use. And somehow I’m alright.” Author Joe Tangari, “That big opening chord sounds like a challenge to the Beatles of a ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ Those vocal harmonies positively soar on Pete Townshend’s guitar jangle, and the modulation at the end is brilliant, preceded by Daltrey’s vocal has just the right tinge of sadness as he heaves the inner conflict stoked by his relationship on the table for all to see.” Author John Atkins, “It is the archetypal Who performance of the era, more representative than ‘My Generation’ and more mature than ‘I Can’t Explain.’ The middle section is very well achieved, culminating in one of the best recorded examples of Townshend’s revolutionary power-chord solo technique – a ringing, cascading succession of distorted riffs and variations.”

83. “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash. Songwriter: Johnny Cash; #32 pop; #1 country; 1968. Is there anything more spine-tingling in popular music than hearing a bunch of murderers, rapists, and serial jaywalkers whooping it up after The Man in Black proclaims that he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”? Sorry to pull the curtain back on this one, but the cheering wasn’t from the concert – it was added during the production process. Some history – in 1953, songwriter/pianist/arranger Gordon Jenkins released “Crescent City Blues,” which was sung by Beverly Mahr and written from the perspective of a lonely woman imagining the better life that people leaving Crescent City, via train, are experiencing (“I see the rich folk eating in a fancy dining car/They’re probably having pheasant breast and eastern caviar”). Johnny Cash took many of the lyrics directly from “Crescent City Blues” for “Folsom Prison Blues,” rewriting from the point of view of a prisoner who famously “shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” and restructured the song from a 12-bar blues number to his bare-boned country approach. (A lawsuit later resulted in a $75,000 settlement for Jenkins, which was probably pennies on the dollar compared to the royalties and publishing earnings of the song). “Folsom Prison Blues” peaked at #4 on the country charts 1956. The song was a bigger hit as the lead track to Cash’s classic 1968 “At Folsom Prison” album. Cash, “Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform to.” From an image perspective, Cash’s association with Folsom prison made him both a country music outlaw and someone who embodied the concept of cultural empathy.

82. “What I’d Say,” Ray Charles. Songwriter: Ray Charles; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1959. Having more time than songs available for a gig, Ray Charles instructed his band, “‘Hey, whatever I do, just follow me. And I said the same thing to the girls, I said, ‘Whatever I say, just repeat it, I don’t care what it is.’ “The people just went crazy, and they loved that little ‘ummmmh, unnnnh.’ Later on, people said it was vulgar, but, hell, let’s face it, everybody knows about the ‘ummmmh, unnnnh.’ That’s how we all got here.” Ray included a rhumba beat with his relentless electric piano playing to mix gospel call-and-response with pure human sexuality. (At one point, the record had to be edited to calm the fears of uptight radio programmers). Charles biographer Michael Lydon, “’What’d I Say’ was a monster with footprints bigger than its numbers. Daringly different, wildly sexy, and fabulously danceable, the record riveted listeners. When ‘What’d I Say’ came on the radio, some turned it off in disgust, but millions turned the volume up to blasting and sang ‘Unnnh, unnnh, oooooh, oooooh’ along with Ray and the Raelettes. (It) became the life of a million parties, the spark of as many romances.”

81. “Praise You,” Fatboy Slim. Songwriters: Norman Cook, Camille Yarbrough; #36 pop; 1999. “Praise You” demonstrates the eclectic genius of Norman Cook, mixing lyrics from “Take Yo’ Praise,” an obscure 1975 R&B song by Chicago singer Camille Yarbrough, with a piano sample from the 1973 JBL “Sessions” album, an audio guide to how records are made. Added to that mix was a funk guitar lick from a 1979 disco version of Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All,” background vocals from the theme to the “Fat Albert” television show, an organ riff from Steve Miller’s 1968 album track “Lucky Man,” and a beat picked from Tom Fogerty’s post CCR outfit named Ruby. All these elements are built into an irresistible dance number, a song that feels like a retro yet fresh celebration not just of club culture, but of life itself. Fatboy Slim on his technique, “On the whole I would only sample records that weren’t hits in the first place because for me it would be like shooting fish in a barrel just to use a well-known chorus and then do something else with it. I love the juxtaposition. I love the idea of musical collage where you’ve taken so many tiny little bits that the vocal is the only thing you have to clear and everything else is fragmented so it’s unrecognizable. If you look at famous collages, they didn’t have to clear every single scrap or chunk they used to make up the color. For me, there was a tremendous amount of excitement about what you could get away with and how much you could pervert things. And to see how you could just recycle records that sold 15 copies when they came out, but find that one little bit of magic in them and turn it into a hit.” Slim on the lyrics by Camille Yarbrough, “Her vocal just had a beautiful quality to it. The sentiment fits so many different occasions. The beauty of the lyrics is that they work at football matches, they work at gigs where we’ve all had a great night, or it’s been raining all day at a festival but we’re here. Just the phrase ‘we’ve come a long long way together through the hard times and the good’… It’s kind of a universal, communal thing. It’s affirmative and uplifting and those things do tend to stand the test of time.”


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