Anyone who truly appreciates music, appreciates it on a deep, visceral level and enjoys a wide variety of sound. No, we’re not just talking about listening to everything on the radio, but rather having an ear to admire how this art form has evolved and flourished over time. Whatever our musical commitment, we as humans each innately possess a unique inner sense of rhythm, melody and flow — whether it be witnessing a complex orchestration onstage or simply being outdoors.
As Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle once penned, “All deep things are song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls! The primal element of us; of us, and of all things … See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it.”
Trying to establish a definitive, Rolling Stone-esque list of the greatest songs of all time would be foolish, and I don’t purport this list to be such since the pursuit is so subjective anyway. If it seems like I have the music critics’ version of commitment issues, that’s because I do. Even with this vague, waffling caveat, narrowing down a list was like trying to put my life’s wisdom in a one page, double-spaced sheet of paper using 14-point font.
Regardless of my personal weighty struggles crafting a workable compilation, here are 20 tunes (in no particular order) I deem profound, unique, influential or revolutionary in their own right and, if nothing else, a gateway into a facet of music some unsuspecting reader may not yet have encountered.
Radiohead, “Everything In Its Right Place”
As probably the most influential and critically acclaimed band of the last decade, it’s not hard to select Radiohead for a spot on this list. It is difficult, however, to pick one song from the group’s mind-boggling repertoire of tuneage. (“Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police” and “Pyramid Song” also come to mind, just to name a few.)
Arguably the best album from the British rock behemoths is the wildly experimental and successful “Kid A,” a successful marriage of the digital and organic — like the ideal soundtrack for a trip to the moon. The record kicks off with “Everything In Its Right Place,” setting the mesmerizing mood with a combination of dreamy keyboards and digitally-altered voices. Sporting only four seemingly nonsensical lines of vocals, maniacal genius Thom Yorke wrings every last bit of emotion from them, using his voice and trademark falsetto more as a lead instrument than way to communicate a lyrical message.
As they tend to do, Radiohead somehow makes sense of the perceived dissonance, masterfully layering sounds to craft a suberb opener to an album sure to be a rock standard for decades to come.
Counting Crows, “Round Here”
Before becoming known as the “go to” guys for subpar pop-rock anthems on the Shrek movie soundtracks, Bay Area-born Counting Crows played an undeniably honest brand of minimalist alt-rock. With the distinctive wounded croon of frontman Adam Duritz and his raw, poignant lyricism, the group peaked and thrived in the post-grunge landscape of the ’90s.
Beginning with their classic 1993 debut album August and Everything After, Counting Crows swiftly developed an ardent fan base — including David Letterman, who plugged the band before they took the stage and delivered a heartfelt rendition of “Round Here,” almost verging on feeling a little too personal for a late night talk show gig.
The song opens with 12 seconds of subdued organ, barely audible, before a haunting, three-note guitar riff leads to Duritz’ intimate verse and crescendos until again retiring into a chiasmus-inspired loneliness at the end — one that’s vividly and universally easy to relate to.
Earth, Wind & Fire, “That’s the Way of the World”
In my opinion, one of music’s most unsung heroes is Earth, Wind & Fire, a group that pretty much single-handedly introduced the nation (and probably most of the world) to a wide array of native African rhythms and fused an eclectic laundry list of genres more extensive than you could likely rattle off the top of your head — including, but not limited to, jazz, soul, gospel blues, pop, folk, disco and rock. Even more basic is the band’s ability to strike a positive groove with silky smooth harmonies and lush orchestrations.
Establishing widespread popularity in the ‘70s, Earth, Wind & Fire (founded and led by the multi-talented Maurice White who, along with vocalist Philip Bailey) demonstrated some of the most versatile vocal ranges of the last century. (I dare any male to successfully sing along with “Reasons.”) Their musical vision includes the group’s slower but nonetheless super groovy 1975 classic “That’s the Way of the World,” featuring a velvety keyboard, funky guitars and the White/Bailey vocal duo at some of their finest.
Animal Collective, “My Girls”
More of a sonic experience than a song, indie freak-folkers Animal Collective achieve some more accessible fare in “My Girls” — avoiding avant-garde practices like exploring the intricacies of a single note in the duration of two normal songs, for example. The group kicks this number off with some ambient nighttime noises, soon swirling into a cascading synthesizer riff that makes you feel like you’re watching a psychedelic time lapse reproduction of a growing daffodil on the Discovery Channel. Duo David Portner and Noah Lennox (Avey Tare and Panda Bear, respectively) slowly layer on the aesthetics, incorporating their idiosyncratic mishmash of smooth vocals, bass dub and ethereal textures that transition into deep bass and handclaps with a visceral chorus that’s sure to stay in your head for hours.
Raised By Swans, “Secret Garden/S.C.”
Taking cues from similar-sounding ethereal predecessors like Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky, Canadian indie quartet Raised By Swans takes listeners on atmospheric introspection with haunting, slow-burn melodies and deliberately plucked guitars. Relatively unknown (despite having a song prominently featured in the film “Chloe”), the group taps into themes and musical expression usually captured by more seasoned musicians.
From the starkly beautiful songs on No Ghostless Place — the group’s recent follow-up effort to 2005’s Codes and Secret Longing — comes “Secret Garden/S.C.,” a meditative track with ringing melodies, finding serenity in its simplicity. A trudging beat gives the ambient aura a framework, while lead singer/guitarist Eric Howden’s piercing falsetto and vocal architecture lead the listener on a journey through waves of nostalgia and personal reflection.
Miles Davis, “Flamenco Sketches”
Considered by many as the only true original American art form, jazz is our history — really anyone’s history who enjoys rock, rap, folk or country music, for that matter — shaping and influencing what music was to become and still is. Probably the most influential album from perhaps the greatest jazz artist of all time is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Recorded in 1959 at Columbia’s studio in New York City, the sessions featured a “dream team” of musicians such as pianist Bill Evans and saxophone legend John Coltrane.
Leaving behind complex chord changes, Davis decided to explore “modality,” a style relying on scales for improvisation. In the album’s making, Davis offered little by way of explanation as to what the musicians were to record — which makes the resulting improvisation so impressive, every note handcrafted and filled with emotion and purpose. Even more impressive is the fact that “Flamenco Sketches” was the only tune recorded in a single take. As recognizable as any great musician’s voice, Miles Davis’ classic trumpet tone careens in and out, leading a musical revolution for the ages.
Mindy Smith & Dolly Parton, “Jolene”
“The Queen of Country Music” Dolly Parton’s 1974 country standard “Jolene” has been covered by more than its fair share of admiring artists (and is ranked #217 on Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”). It’s that fact which makes it a surprise that little-known folk artist Mindy Smith was the one to do the song most justice — and receive the praise of Parton herself.
Asked in 2003 to contribute to the Parton tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman, Smith took the opportunity and ran with it, infusing the song with a profound sense of heart-wrenching sadness and pleading. The hit, which speaks of a housewife begging a beautiful woman not to “take my man,” suits Smith’s voice — pure yet wise beyond her years, with a subtle, rootsy quality. Parton added backing vocals to the version Smith put on her first album and the pair have performed together many times, the former always graciously holding back for the newcomer to shine.
Muse, “Knights of Cydonia”
Defining the latter half of a decade for many rock fans, Muse is a modern-day Queen of sorts, fusing electronic experimentation and driving guitar with frontman Matthew Bellamy’s operatic falsetto. One of the group’s more grandiose efforts is “Knights of Cydonia” — one part otherworldy invasion, one part John Wayne Western with some heavy metal-tinged guitar thrown in, just for good measure.
At over six minutes in length, this epic is divided into three sections, beginning with a galloping verse. Halfway through, everything halts as Bellamy channels his best Freddie Mercury in a huge vocal harmony that builds until it peaks at an impressively high octave leading into the third act — a fist-pumping electric guitar riff that leaves you breathless after the buildup. This is the kind of music and thunderous energy that can electrify an arena which, by the way, is definitely the preferred way to have Muse command your listenin’ holes.
Sufjan Stevens, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!”
Genre-defying Sufjan Stevens is at some of his best here (I’ll refrain from including the song’s title to reduce paragraph length). Some opening gentle guitar plucking is softened further by an accompanying flute until the latter instrument is replaced by Stevens’ whispery vocals and delicate harmonies. Piano chords and a pumping oboe section separate the verses, seeming cognitively arbitrary but, as usual, he makes it all work somehow through compositions simultaneously exotic yet warm. The bridge picks up a bit after the first two stanzas, coupling a circus-like accordion with a horn section and round of voices. “I can tell you, we swaggered and swayed/Deep in the tower, the prairies below/I can tell you, the telling gets old,” he sings, reflecting on love lost. The tune ends with rolling cymbals, a wonderfully out of place distorted guitar feed and a feeling of strange accomplishment.
Erik Satie, “Trois Gymnopedie”
As contemporary a sounding classical piece as you’ll find anywhere, Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedie” is timeless (even having been covered by Blood, Sweat & Tears in the ‘60s). The song’s pace — a trudging progression of chords always arriving a half beat later than expected — sets the perfect mood for the introspective melancholia. Soon a high-range melody tip toes over the deliberate strokes and it feels like you can almost hear the composer’s stream-of-consciousness through the expressive notes and dynamics.
This song is so good because it understands the need for “less is more,” bordering on a grandiose crescendo at times, but wisely settling for a simple key change and always returning to its original refrain. The final few minutes hint at hope but ultimately leave it up to the listener to know what to do with such a musical purging, ending on an ambiguous, dissonant chord.
Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”
Originally penned by Leonard Cohen, this song needs little introduction. While most covers serve only to perpetuate the memory of a successful melody, Buckley’s passionate rendition is all his own. Listen carefully for his wistful sigh before the opening of one of the best songs of all time.
The Velvet Underground, “Sweet Jane”
An American rock group from New York City, The Velvet Underground — while never really successful during their time together — is considered by many as one of the most influential bands of the ‘60s. Upon hearing one of the groups more gleeful tunes, “Sweet Jane,” you can’t help but appreciate the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, poised to affect many musicians to come.
Donny Hathaway, “What’s Going On?”
One of R&B’s best voices of all time, Donny Hathaway has inspired the likes of Alicia Keys, Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder among others with his smooth and soulful pipes. Few can take on Marvin Gaye’s immortal classic and do it justice. Hathaway does.
Who doesn’t love the pulsing synthesizer and infectious guitar riff opening these French pop rockers’ gateway drug of a single? With sleek, danceable grooves and catchy hooks, this infectious group’s fanbase keeps growing.
Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams”
Whether it’s penning some of the most enduring soft rock hits of the last few decades or causing a spike in babies being born with the name “Rhiannon,” Fleetwood Mac has enjoyed long-term success with the group’s lovably hippie strain of pop, led on this track by famous, husky-voiced frontwoman Stevie Nicks.
Formed in 2003 in Gilbert, AZ — a place definitely not known for its local music scene — Lydia is the brainchild of five high school friends. While never reaching the mainstream, the indie band has a cult following and are noted for emotionally resonant tunes that defy the genre’s whiny predecessors with the strangely perfect coupling of androgynous lead vocals and a high harmony. Copeland’s Aaron Marsh steps in on this number, giving it a certain extra je ne sais quois.
Jimmy Eat World, “23”
As the closing track on Futures, the follow-up album to the group’s hugely successful self-titled record, “23” represents what Jimmy Eat World does best — creating a melodic blend of soaring arena rock and toe-tapping power pop. More accessible than the emo posterboys they were once considered, the band thrives on frontman Jim Adkins’ desperate vocals, weighty lyricism and heavy hooks.
Band of Horses, “Our Swords”
From the rootsy guitar riffs to the heavy harmonies to the group’s majority sporting Jeremiah Johnson-esque beards, Band of Horses revels in its ability to play a folk-infused brand of American rock with an unmistakable indie aesthetic and Western vibe. Bridging the gap between contemporary and old school musical traditions, “Our Swords” trots along with a plunky bass, marching rhythm and Ben Bridwell’s distinct vocals.
Eva Cassidy, “Kathy’s Song”
A cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s (who also could have easily made this list) famous tune, Eva Cassidy creates an even more intimate atmosphere with a gently Travis-picked guitar and her trademark pure vocals that could make even the world’s most calloused dictators evaluate their personal righteousness.
Ray LaMontagne, “Hold You In My Arms”
Quitting a dead-end job at a shoe factory to pursue a career in music, Ray LaMontagne is a blue-eyed soul brother who “sings from the gut and not from the nose.” Bringing “sexy back” to time-worn, bluesy affairs, this singer-songwriter’s unmistakable rasp adds an authenticity to his rustic sound.
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