Lists are always subjective, but songs are particularly so – there are way more to choose from. It’s also way easier to burn out on songs – twenty years ago I would have likely chosen popular tracks like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Superstition’, but now the list is largely comprised on deep cuts that haven’t outworn their welcome with radio exposure.
At the same time, it’s noticeable that most of these songs are old friends – they’re all from the 20th century and I’ve known them all for years – it takes a while for songs to earn this level of love.
Here are my ten favourite songs, presented in alphabetical order:
Be My Baby by The Ronettes
1963, later appeared on Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica (1964)
Phil Spector isn’t the only famous musician to sully his reputation with subsequent misdeeds, but his conviction for murder hasn’t helped his stocks. But he was a hugely influential figure in the development of pop music, an auteur who used the studio as an instrument. ‘Be My Baby’ may be his finest moment, teen themed but meticulously arranged. It’s been estimated that the song has been played almost 4 million times on radio and television since 1963; the equivalent of 17 years back to back.
I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see
For every kiss you give me I’ll give you three
Close to the Edge by Yes
from Close To The Edge (1972)
‘Close to the Edge’ takes up an entire LP side, clocking in at nearly twenty minutes, but it’s all the best aspects of Yes rolled into one track. Chris Squire’s thunderous bass, Jon Anderson’s high pitched vocals spouting religious gibberish, Rick Wakeman’s flamboyant keyboards, Bill Bruford’s jazzy drumming,and Steve Howe’s spidery guitar all fight for your attention in a track bursting with ideas.
We relieve the tension only to find out the master’s name
Dealer by John Martyn
from One World (1977)
Martyn’s 1977 album One World is a unique record, with the folk musician adding dub and an outdoor ambience to his palette. While most of the record is mellow, the opener ‘Dealer’ simmers, with Martyn’s husky and slurred vocals, and fiery guitar leads. Steve Winwood guests on bass and synthesizer.
Well, I cannot be your lover and I will not be your friend
Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow by Joni Mitchell
from The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
This song from Joni Mitchell‘s most creative era has unique textures, featuring a dobro and congas. Wilton Felder’s busy bass is the star attraction, with his riff providing the song’s main hook. Mitchell was starting to assert herself lyrically, losing the support of music critics – the song ends with the provocative line “It take a heart like Mary’s these days when your man gets weak.”
The good slaves love the good book
A rebel loves a cause
Easter Theatre by XTC
from Apple Venus Volume 1 (1999)
Andy Partridge is one of the most creative songwriters in pop music; he’ll dazzle you with his inventive chord sequences and intelligent lyrics. His best song came well into his career, on the band’s orchestral record Apple Venus Volume 1. The lyrics describe a medieval festival, and Partridge himself plays the stinging guitar solo that’s out of place yet fits perfectly. Partridge stated in an interview with XTC fan-site Chalkhills that he’d “exorcized a lot of those kind of Lennon-and-McCartney, Bacharach-and-David, Brian Wilson type ghosts out of my system” by writing this song, that he too modestly describes as merely near-perfect.
Enter Easter and she’s dressed in yellow yolk
The French Inhaler by Warren Zevon
from Warren Zevon (1976)
A smooth rocker with a dark streak, Zevon’s a masterful songwriter, and he dispenses with the standard verse/chorus structure of pop music on this piece. Instead, ‘The French Inhaler’ meanders through its different sections, a nasty, witty kiss-off to an ex-partner. The moment when Glenn Frey and Don Henley’s backing vocals launch is heavenly.
How’re you going to make your way in the world, woman
When you weren’t cut out for working
I Wanna Be Your Lover by Prince
from Prince (1979)
Prince went on to make better albums, but for my money he never recorded a better song than the lead single from his second album, 1979’s Prince. Prince, in his very early twenties, wrote, performed, engineered, and produced the entire album by himself. ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ is straightforward, but the combination of the fantastic falsetto vocal and energetic funk is irresistible.
I ain’t got no money
I ain’t like those other guys you hang around
Only Shallow by My Bloody Valentine
from Loveless (1991)
The guitars on the opening track of Loveless always surprises me – simultaneously dreamy and punchy, a masterpiece of production from My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields.
Like a pillow
Peaches En Regalia by Frank Zappa
from Hot Rats (1970)
I’m not a Zappa fanatic, largely because he has two different facets to his work. There’s the Frank Zappa who recorded the scatological social commentary about yellow snow and wet t-shirt competitions. But there’s also the Zappa who’s a phenomenal guitarist and jazz-fusion maestro. ‘Peaches en Regalia’ is a succinct instrumental which dazzles with its fast moving structure and virtuosity. Ian Underwood is the featured musician on keyboards, flute, clarinet, and saxophone, while a young Shuggie Otis plays bass.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? by Pet Shop Boys
from Actually (1987)
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were hit machines in the mid-1980s, with their witty, tuneful synth-pop. ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ resurrected the career of Dusty Springfield, whose soaring vocals are a perfect contrast with Tennant’s English deadpan. The duo held the song back for three years after writing it, until they could convince Springfield to record with them.
Chasing time from hour to hour
I pour the drinks and crush the flowers
Want to write in your top ten tunes? Post them in the comments, or write your own blog post.