I fully recognize that lists are inherently foolish, so this is more a record of some of the songs that I really love now, and of course some old favourites. All tracks appear on some of my favourite albums, and to avoid constant editing, they are not ranked. Ranking music is especialy foolish.
Tangled Up in Blue: Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
The opening track of Bob’s break-up album (left) contains some of his best lyrics, as well as a wonderfully relaxed back-up. It’s filled with sneaky metaphors and all that, and Dylan’s stark humour prevents it from falling into the sop bin.
Thirteen: Big Star (#1 Record, 1973)
Few tracks capture so un-sappily the unique throb of the heart (hear me out) that comes with being teenaged. I’m awfully condescending of new teenaged idols whom singing about adolescent angst is part of the job application. Somehow these 20-something year-olds managed to get the full picture in 2 minutes and 35 seconds.
Rocks Off: Rolling Stones (Exile on Main St., 1972)
The Stones exercised their trademark uneasy sleaze on many tracks, but none quite do it for me with quite the same druggy punch of Rocks Off, the rocker that kicks off one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time. Best line: ”the sunshine bores the daylights outta me”.
Fearless: Pink Floyd (Meddle, 1971)
Arguably the greatest chill-out song of all time (before that was ‘a thing’). The Floyd, while sometimes indescribably lower-sixth, could be the finest purveyors of a wonderfully British sensibility in their lyrics: ”I’ll climb the hill in my own time” still resonates with me. ‘Let me live my life the way I want to’, as one James Hendrix said.
Cemetry Gates: The Smiths (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Along with Neil Young’s Ambulance Blues and possibly Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, The Smiths’ song represents the very finest in musical critic-bashing. After all, there’s always someone somewhere, with a big nose who knows, who’ll trip you up and laugh when you fall. Is it plagiarism if I don’t use quote marks? Not in rock ‘n’ roll.
Strawberry Flats: Little Feat (S/T, 1971)
The 70’s were a time of urban paranoia (am I right?), and Little Feat’s Strawberry Flats, from the album I detailed in my very first post, expresses this with a wonderful mordant humour and a killer guitar solo to boot.
Deacon Blues: Steely Dan (Aja, 1977)
If anything exemplified what Robert Christgau called ”Beautiful loser fatalism”, it’s Steely Dan’s jazzy ballad from one of pop’s sneakiest masterpieces. The Dan’s reflective protagonist is their favourite kind of person: A whiskey-soaked, New York apartment-dwelling jazz enthusiast. Somehow this type of character has become an essential part of American urban folklore.
The Weight: The Band (Music From Big Pink, 1968),
I don’t usually like biblical references, but when I do, they’re in a Band song. Though their greatest album came afterwards, the Band’s definitive moment is on this simple song of unparalleled folky beauty. Straight out of the basement with Bob Dylan, these uncomplicated troubadors crafted what Roger Waters’ called the ‘second most influential rock album’. Make of that what you will.
Powderfinger: Neil Young (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Here is my list of the top ten Neil Young tracks, where I place Powderfinger at No. 1.
When the Levee Breaks: Led Zeppelin (IV, 1971)
A phenomenal rock song, When the Levee Breaks has all the roots of great hard music in its soul: the Blues, the rock, the roll, and the sound of a truly great band exercising their momentous thunder on record. The closest rock ‘n’ roll has ever come to armageddon, with John Bonham’s much sampled beat seeming to encapsulate every single rhythm of rock past in one neanderthol thud with an eternal echo. The lyrics actually refer to the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which flooded a space the size of Scotland. The entirety of Scotland under thirty feet of water. Dwell on that. Displacing hundreds of thousands, and killing hundreds. That’s some serious shit, and part of me likes to think that the largely unreported primal destruction of that event is frozen in the many grooves of this song (and of its original source); a group of white guys paying majestic tribute to an entire penurious culture of sadly forgotten American blacks; to whom Led Zepplin owe their blues roots.
Here’s a performance from The Band’s The Last Watz which features two artists on this list. And a certain artist hiding singing backing vocals. From behind a curtain.
From ”The Last Waltz”, 1978: United Artists