Matt Erickson’s Top 100 Songs Ever. Part 1: 100-91
Want to know what the best song of all time is? Easy – it’s “Stages” by ZZ Top. I first heard it when I was maybe five or six. Before it was even through playing, I declared to my family that it was my favorite song.
My older brother, who was in high school, had been giving me a tour of his obsessively tended collection of rock cassettes. I had heard him spend more time with them than with any single person, and the sounds that came from behind his shut bedroom door often found their way inside my head. On this particular day, he was letting me choose anything I wanted to hear. I would point to a cassette; he would play a snippet; and I would quickly make my judgment (five-year-olds tend to know how to divide the world between things they like and things they don’t).
I had no idea what to choose at first. Each rectangular box was densely packed with mystery. I saw something called “Ozzy Osbourne.” The name sounded funny. I was hopeful. But it sounded bad to me. Same thing with Yngwie Malmsteen: hilarious name; boring, grating sound. Since the ‘funny name’ approach was not working, I tried a different strategy: colors. The one with the bold yellow label caught my eye, as most of the labels were of the CBS Records font – white, with those big, red, block letters. Also, while most tapes were white, this tape was clear. Awesome. I had high hopes again. He put the tape in his silver Teac boombox.
This is what is sounded like to me: a mean man, laughing evilly, flying some sort of machine gun helicopter thingy through a grey sky, getting closer and closer until finally pushing another man, screaming, into a lake. He plunges into the water and for the next three minutes, slowly sinks. He’s not panicking; rather, just looking around, observing neon fish and plants, calmly drowning. I immediately asked to hear it again. It sounded like some of my weirdest dreams, and I liked it. At that moment, I memorized my new favorite song as “Breathe” by “Pink Floyd.”
Its reign would be short-lived, however. Within a few more minutes, I had discovered ZZ Top’s Afterburner album, which was full of synthesizers and hooks, particularly “Stages.” It didn’t reach the darker corners of my imagination like “Breathe” did, but it just sounded so cool…
If I have any addictions, they are
1) nostalgia; and
2) making lists.
While these two impulses can be seen as contradictory (one is nebulous, free-flowing, and easily distorted; the other, concrete and hierarchical), they are the two ways in which my mind attempts to organize reality.
At the intersection of these two addictions lie my Top 100 Songs Ever lists. That’s plural, as there have been many, about once a year for the past twenty. I got the idea, I think, from the now defunct radio station 98.7, WLLZ (“Detroit’s Wheels!”), when each Memorial Day weekend they would count down “The 500 Greatest Rock and Roll Songs of All Time.” Imitating my older brother once again, I wrote down every single song on lined paper, camping by the radio all weekend and listening with intense focus, in case I needed the DJ to tell me the name of, say, song number 271.
(Those DJs would make me so mad when they wouldn’t say the name of the goddamned song! I remember even fighting back tears when, two days into the countdown, after having written down 397 songs, having to leave a line completely blank because the DJ couldn’t just say the name of the song! No, instead they had to talk about “cash giveaway weekdays” or something stupid. I firmly believe it was bad karma for WLLZ, which one morning turned into “smooth jazz” and never recovered.)
The greatest-song-list concept lived on for me, up through high school, where I would occasionally scratch out a Top 100 in the margins of my algebra notebook. The “greatest song ever” would rule for a while, then be knocked off its perch. “Stages” was replaced by “Time,” then “Fade to Black” and “Creeping Death” in adolescence, then “Comfortably Numb” and “Northern Sky” in college. Oh yeah, I also had a period where my #1 choice was “I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock & Roll Band).” I am not sure if that would make my Top 1000 at this point…
But once a #1 isn’t a #1 anymore doesn’t make it the wrong #1. Really, the only wrong answer to the question, “what is your favorite song?” is when someone says, lamely, “I don’t know…there’s so many to choose from…” Cramming emotions into hierarchies may not come as naturally to some, but it isn’t like these will be etched on our tombstones. Instead, think of it as a snapshot of how you were feeling at a particular moment in your life. If you feel a completely different way in ten years, or even next week, does it make the first feeling wrong? “Speak what you think today in hard words, and tomorrow say what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you say today.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that, perhaps after he discovered an old Top 100 he made with Antonio Salieri at #1.
There is a certain truth in these moments that are diluted by consensus. That is why I am now less interested in radio station countdowns, and VH1 countdowns, and critics’ lists, than I am in my friends’ personal lists. Critics just copy each other anyway. Do they actually listen to Revolver or “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” anymore? Do those songs, after hundreds of listens, still provide new layers of emotion, new epiphanies for the sub-conscious, for so many different critics? It’s too much of a coincidence that those lists are all the same. However, an individual person’s Top 100, if they’re honest, is theirs and theirs alone. To me, they are better than horoscopes, palm reading, or personality quizzes.
So here, in exciting countdown fashion, is the first tenth of my Top 100, for where I am right now, a 28 year old in the summer of 2009. Nine more installments to come, each functioning as a mix CD, ranging between 40 and 70 minutes. And if you want to join in the fun, I encourage you to leave your own lists in the comments section. Along with, of course, derisive remarks about embarrassing songs that I love no matter how much I try not to. At the very least, I hope to introduce you to some good new music, corroborate the quality of your favorites, or perhaps force you to give another listen to some you had dismissed.
100. Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding) ~ Elton John
So dramatic it scared the hell out of me when I was little. Still does at times, especially those startling, once-in-a-long while times an FM station plays it late at night. I have the mp3 in my laptop now, but I still prefer the messy, static-laced version I have on a red and black Maxell cassette from when I taped it off the radio circa 1987. From Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973).
99. Hammer and Nails ~ Dave Schramm
Another epitaph, but with skeletal folk rather than piano pyrotechnics. No flair; just a couple old friends and perhaps some dead leaves blowing around. Discovered via a CD sampler I randomly grabbed from a 99 cent used CD bin. From Hammer and Nails (1999).
98. 2 + 2 = ? ~ The Bob Seger System
Growing up in Detroit, Bob Seger songs were like Chinese water torture. It wasn’t that any of the individual songs were particularly bad, but the slow-drip accumulation of hearing “Still the Same,” for the 473rd time, pokes at a very specific nerve in the back of the eyeball. On classic rock radio formats, he and Don Henley are the kings of complacency rock, which is weird, because this anti-Vietnam rant is sung with so much visceral hatred, and such a succinct, powerful riff, that it’s truly one of the best punk rock songs ever. From Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man (1968).
97. The Hideaway ~ The Young Generation
One of those ’60s girl group songs so adorably sung you almost don’t notice how soul-crushing the story is. It has a sing-along chorus, and it documents the worst moment in the life of a human being. Single originally released in 1965. Can be found on the compilation One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found (2005).
96. Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie ~ Belle & Sebastian
Their strengths have always been black humor – with straight-face delivery – and tight melody. This song has both, plus a hard-driving momentum uncharacteristic of B&S, or the entire ‘bed-sit’ genre. It serves them well here, and it’s their best song. From Lazy Line Painter Jane (1997).
95. Drive ~ The Cars
I miss the “bigness” of ’80s ballads, with synthesizers as big as the night sky. What makes this one really great is the rather restrained singing, and the lyrics so straightforward and simple that they can always be appropriated for your own complicated situation. From Heartbeat City (1984).
94. The Only Man in Town ~ Moose
Read a strong review of this album on allmusic.com, then it took me forever to find it on eBay. Was well worth it. Sunny, loopy melodies, playful lyrics – it’s the best song from one of the happiest sounding albums ever. From High Ball Me! (2000)
93. French Film Blurred ~ Wire
Wire seem like they would win a Math Olympiad, should they compete against other bands (see #98). Most of their songs are less like cinema than like clean little equations, perfectly measured, with airtight logic. They are at their best, however, when they get several going at the same time, each just slightly out of step with one another. This song is such an enigma, the soundtrack to an M.C. Escher painting. From Chairs Missing (1978).
92. Starless ~ King Crimson
Would have been in my Top 20 in years past. Actually, it still is in my Top 20, if it catches me at the right moment. The guy is kind of a lumbering singer, but the musicianship is incredible. Definitely not background music; it requires intense concentration and probably multiple listens to let the melodies sink in. But the part at the end where the original melody comes back, triumphantly, is one of the most exhilarating payoffs I know of. From Red (1974).
91. The Whole of the Law ~ The Only Ones
This croaked-out, one verse love song is one of my favorite mix CD closers, even though The Only Ones led off their first album with it. An elegant, jazzy ballad by a pop-punk band nostalgic for times when songs were all two-minute love letters. So this time the awkward singing only adds to the appeal. From The Only Ones (1978).
Hammer and Nails ~ Laura Cantrell
For an equally strong version of #99, try to find Laura Cantrell’s cover. Slightly more full-bodied production, and a voice more like apple cider than whiskey-and-cigarettes. From the compilation Matador Records Intended Play Spring 2006.