The best 143 songs of all time
May 21, 2014 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Andrew Collins started a blog in July 2013 - Circles of Life: The 143 - he's about half way through now.

There are no embedded youtube clips or sound files because he "rejected it on the grounds that an embedded clip or sound file would detract from the purpose of the project, which is — selfishly — for me to exercise my fingers and brain in describing and contextualising 143 songs".
Doesn't mean I can't do it though (this Chrome extension may come in handy):
- ABC, Unzip (1983) [when he delivers the killer line in the second verse, “She’s vegetarian except when it comes to sex,” I blush every time.]
- The Rakes, We Are All Animals (2005) [This is catchy stuff, with witty lines that stay in the mind]
- Public Enemy, Rebel Without A Pause (1987) [This is black power, pure and simple, its urgency communicated by the unusual 109bpm velocity (I looked that up) and the JBs’ hornsqueal, which were signatures of a hip hop crew with their own agenda.]
- David Bowie, Be My Wife (1977) [It’s the pub piano of the intro that does it for me, banging away throughout as if by Mrs Mills, the perfect ironic underlay for Bowie’s Chas & Dave vocal.]
- Colourbox, Just Give ’Em Whiskey (1985) [a rattling, guitar-led sprint through sci-fi thrillers Westworld and The Andromeda Strain, via dialogue lifted wholesale from videotapes and set to modern rock, ricocheting gunshots and soundtrack stings.]
- The Elgins, Put Yourself In My Place (1966) [A saccharine, heady, insistent tune that grips your heart]
- Clock DVA, 4 Hours (1981) [Over a grumbling bass, a blunt-instrument drumbeat and the pained wail of a sax, we are indoctrinated into a neo-noir nightmare]
- Beastie Boys, An Open Letter To NYC (2004) [It’s nostalgic, defiant, together and stirring.]
- George Harrison, Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll) (1970) [There aren’t many “ditties” (George’s word) about rich men who had houses built and designed their gardens, grottos and follies, full stop, but I doubt there’s one that channels its subject like this one.]
- The Wedding Present, My Favourite Dress (1987) [There are two reasons why this song is magic. One is the decisive moan Gedge delivers after the last line. There are a lot of important “oh”s in pop music, but this is one to bruise your ribs from the inside. The second is the one minute and 24 seconds of outro, which rises and falls from that thousand-words “Ohhh” to the final, undressed jangle.]
- 10cc, I’m Not In Love (1975) [its haunting choral effect was achieved in 1974 at the band’s own Strawberry Studios with each layer of voice recorded separately (all four band members are involved), until they had 256.]
- The Jesus & Mary Chain, Never Understand (1985) [From the squall, a grumbling bassline, then a crackling guitar riff and rudimentary drum signature emerge, and an oddly sweet but half-hidden voice makes recognisable words amid the interference.]
- Burial, Archangel (2007) [The song is all hints and vagaries. You fill in the blanks, and dubstep has many blanks.]
- Wu-Tang Clan, Let My Niggas Live (2000) [its “rigorous moves” glower, rumble and stalk to create a soundtrack to a film about a world I do not know, and that, I guess, is the allure.]
- Bob Dylan, Tell Me That It Isn’t True (1969) Stirling Castle [less than three minutes long but lifted by an enthusiastic drum part from Kenneth Buttrey, twinkling with all those guitars, enhanced with a bit of honky tonk piano and made airborne by Dylan’s almost cheekily accessible vocal.]
- Everything But The Girl, Each And Every One (1984) [plaintive brass, school-orchestra percussion (what is that hollow, ridged wooden thing you scrape a stick across?) and voices spun from silk.]
- The Orb, Little Fluffy Clouds (7″ Edit) (1990) [ a remarkably disciplined sonic creation, whose voices drift across the production’s blue sky like clouds]
- The Jackson Sisters, I Believe In Miracles (1973) [so positive, so airborne, so persuasive, it has you hammering thin air and kills all known melancholia dead. ]
- The Sisters Of Mercy, Lucretia My Reflection (1988) [a track to drive a tank to. It consolidates all the dreams and fantasies I entertained during my Goth years of death and horror and sex and power.]
- The Source feat. Candi Staton, You Got The Love (Now Voyager Radio Edit) (1991) [Sometimes a classic song comes together in a roundabout way, but as when the stars align, we should savour the moment. You Got The Love is one of those moments.]
- Pink Floyd, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V (1975) [Big, beaty and bold, it’s also personal and emotional, a prog-rock movement that actually moves.]
- Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Beyond Belief (1982) [About a minute in, Pete Thomas goes all over his kit, and the song prepares to go up a gear; there’s even a gunshot, or what sounds like one. By the time Steve Nieve’s piano cascades we’re into full pulp fiction mode: a lot going on at a high level of emotion, in a very confined space. It’s head-spinning.]
- The Fall, L.A. (1985) [driven by a chuffing synthesised sound and a keyboard pulse, and some of Karl Burns’ heaviest but metronomically tumbling drums, and most of it feels like an instrumental, with that dirty twanging guitar and guttural bass, the vocals more of a wash than a foregrounded detail]
- The Temptations, It’s Growing (1965) [disarmingly simple, high-pitched piano signature, not a riff but a warm-up and picked out, it seems, on a pub upright]
- The Cure, One Hundred Years (1982) [Remember: this magnificent sound was created by three blokes from Sussex, exhausted, drunk, high on drugs and at each others’ throats, imagining they were making their last album]
- Electric Light Orchestra, Mr Blue Sky (1977) [they cook with gas for a full five minutes, using Vocoder and choral effects to tip a simple pop tune into sepulchral glory.]
- Jim Bob, Cartoon Dad (2007) [the brass band intro exquisitely pitched, the drama subsequently built up through a rat-a-tat-tat staccato section and a daringly literal chime before a reference to Big Ben striking.]
- Morrissey, Everyday Is Like Sunday (1988) [Wet sand, pebbles, a bench, stolen clothes, the promenade, the etched postcard, “greased tea” and that glittering prize of a “cheap tray” – this is poetry by any other name, just set to a tune capable of giving even the stout-hearted the vapours.]
- Lionrock, Fire Up The Shoesaw (Original Album Mix) (1996) [It begins, as these things so often do, with a disembodied, echoey sample of an American announcer, seemingly reacting to a primary election result of some kind and the establishment of “a new candidate” and, less conventionally, a “new favourite vegetable which is… asparagus” and then we’re off]
- Adele, Rolling In The Deep (2011) [But I love the smokiness in her voice; the cracks; the scratches; the way she pulls back from total vocal acrobatics; always patting her heart.]
- Scott Walker, Montague Terrace (In Blue) (1967) [The orchestra swirls around the narrator, as if in some West End musical, Walker nudged into the background by the swell as he hits the lamenting heights with a brass-backed chorus that finally names Montague Terrace… in blue]
- Pet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind (1987) [Its synth pulse pumps new life into what is a country song, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery.]
- The Rolling Stones, Wild Horses (1971) [It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock’n’roll, and that combination of acoustic and electric guitars is enough to break anybody’s heart.]
- Frank Wilson, Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) (1965) [The rat-tat-rat-a-tat drum signature hallmarks the kind of record later pressed into service on the sprung dancefloors of Lancashire, but it’s the chiming notes that single this song out.]
- Joy Division, She’s Lost Control (1979) [the song’s riff is played on the bass, by the man with the beard. It’s radical in so many ways.]
- Manic Street Preachers, Motorcycle Emptiness (1992) [whistleable rock’n’roll majestry]
- Billy Bragg, Tank Park Salute (1991) [Floated on musical confidante Cary Tievey’s plangent piano – that’s plaintive rather than funereal, and all the more touching for that (Trust is also piano-led) – Billy’s voice is far from the Essex bark that got him noticed in the mid-80s, yet raw in a different way.]
- The Smiths, Rusholme Ruffians (1985) [descriptive, evocative, fast, funny, fleet of foot and ripe with imagery]
- Gang Of Four, 5.45 (1979) [it has a melodica; perhaps the most effective and beautiful use of that remedial wind instrument in all of post-punk.]
- Crosby, Stills & Nash, Marrakesh Express (1969) [a locomotive little ditty that encapsulates all that was heady and infused about the late 60s and Laurel Canyon]
- The Clash, Groovy Times (1979) [ I can’t think of a more definitive Strummer vocal performance (“Hey, Groovy!”), those words spat out with such righteous fury and agitated saliva.]
- Blind Boys Of Alabama, Way Down In The Hole (2001) [quite dainty, with a tickled bossa nova drum beat, and minimal blues guitar.]
- Dr Dre (feat. Snoop Dogg), Still D.R.E. (1999) [Underpinning all this vocal tennis is one of the great pilfered-or-otherwise cinematic/orchestral riffs in all of hip-hop]
- Led Zeppelin, Whole Lotta Love (1969) [it loops off into a prog hinterland of tickled cymbals, errant percussion, scraped strings, spectral echoes, space traffic, orgasmic monkey noises and then, at the three-minute mark, to the sound of radio station playlist managers heading for the car park, Bonzo signals the song back in,]
- Cocteau Twins, Ivo (1984) [It even has a guitar solo – which is a bit like letting off a firework during a fireworks display.]
- The Kingsmen, Louie Louie (1963) [From that seductive organ intro, offset by the warning-sign of a single offbeat on the snare, the arrangement crashes through the wall, fully formed, driven by a rhythm that must have sounded deeply satanic]
- The Beatles, Blackbird (1968) [A simply picked tune on a Martin D 28 acoustic (you know I looked that up), recorded outside, there is on the millpond surface so little to it, musically, although archaeology reveals roots in a tune for loot by JS Bach, Bourrée in E Minor]
- The Lotus Eaters, The First Picture Of You (1983) [the magic force of this song’s feelings – the sort that feel as if they could actually bring on a change in season – is forever.]
- The Human League, Being Boiled (1980) [a truly pivotal moment in pop music is born: a singer uses the word “sericulture”,]
- Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five (1959) [It’s wordless. A play without dialogue. A tune sung by percussion and wind.]
- Diana Ross, Upside Down (1980) [Ross’s voice, high in the mix (maybe higher than intended), is light, sexy and seamlessly authoritative throughout]
- Radiohead, Idioteque (2000) [Rattling like a little girl’s toy, it makes you jerk your elbows, it makes you think, it makes Thom Yorke enter the same seizure-like state of grace that once possessed Ian Curtis.]
- Tom Waits, Jockey Full Of Bourbon (1985) [The voice, low and ravaged, sings of drop-dead suits, mohair vests, downtown trains and “a two dollar pistol”,]
- Pixies, Debaser (1989) [Frank Black tears into this recording with its highbrow nonsense lyric as if these were his last two minutes and 52 seconds on earth]
- Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988) [It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes.]
- The Farm, All Together Now (1990) [A “terrace singalong” is how it might be dismissed by people who’ve never stepped foot on a terrace, or sang along. But community singing is important]
- Happy Mondays, Mad Cyril (1988) [This beat poetry from the back-bar Bukowski or – according to the late, kingmaking Tony Wilson – the Wine Lodge Yeats, gives vital shape to what is otherwise a near formless barrage of noise.]
- Johnny Cash, Hurt (2002) [Mortality stalks Hurt like a ghost at a wedding. “You could have it all,” sounds like our man preparing to do a deal, and a jabbed piano and second guitar underline the importance of what’s afoot.]
- Talking Heads, Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (1980) [A chattering, Brian Eno-doctored mutant of guitars, squeals and beats speaks in musical tongues, while Byrne, a perspiring Norman Bates-like figure, affects a near-parody of the possessed funk vocalist]
- Faces, Ooh La La (1973) [It’s a glorious, sunshiny, folksy ditty about the passage of time and I do wish that I knew what I know now when I was forty.]
- The The, Uncertain Smile (1983) [a copper-bottomed attention-grabbing lament to romantic loss and solipsistic regret]
- New Order, Regret (1993) [It’s oysters without grit, a city skyline without TV aerials, a billboard panorama without imperfections, a sound so deep and wide and tall it bleeds off the edges of most pop music’s expectations and resets the aspect ratio.]
- The Velvet Underground, Venus In Furs (1967)> [This song sounds like forbidden fruit, a sacrificial drone recorded in a secret place behind a secret door with a secret knock, in a thick fug of analgesic vapour among cross-dressing whiplash folk.]
- Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street (1973) [this vivid, urgent, soulful lament to social exclusion and ethnic deprivation becomes a freedom song]
- Kevin Coyne, Dynamite Daze (1978) [The beat gallops, time is kept, guitars are thrashed, and through it all, Coyne’s almost comedic gurgle; impossible to tear your ears away from, it hiccups and free-forms, rising to a crazy, yodelling falsetto with total abandon]
- The Ronettes, Be My Baby (1963) [her promise on Be My Baby to give three kisses for every one hypothetically provided by her prospective “baby” is one of the high watermarks of all recorded pop.]
- Cud, Rich And Strange (1992) [a tight, bright, almost claustrophobically self-contained glam racket.]
- The Fire Engines, Candy Skin (1981) [A goosebumping obstinate that crystalises everything about 1981 in one electrifying, melodic phrase, augmented thereafter by an entire jumble sale of bashes, squeaks, voices, vibrations and even chocolate box strings, which unite to attain a certain kind of DIY nirvana.]
- James Brown, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1 (1970) [There’s steam coming off this recording, and yet the lid stays on]
- Echo & The Bunnymen, The Killing Moon (1984) [elegant, aromatic, sincere, torrid, spooky, luxurious, deep, wide and long]
- Blondie, Heart Of Glass (1978) [Debbie Harry’s diaphanous, triple-tracked vocal, all hard edges removed, actual words tricky to pick out, is more of a cloud than a statement. A kind of magic.]
posted by unliteral (32 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
no Bee Gees? No Can? No Tiny Tim?
posted by philip-random at 7:41 PM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am on board with many, many of his choices.
posted by mykescipark at 7:42 PM on May 21, 2014

whoa. cool.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:44 PM on May 21, 2014

no Bee Gees? No Can? No Tiny Tim?

To be clear, these are very good songs. The ones that I know. I'm arguing for a longer list.
posted by philip-random at 7:48 PM on May 21, 2014

Wow, no. I mean, there's some good songs on here, and I admit to not know a lot of other ones, but... Even on the same albums of some of these there are better tracks. So... Basically what I'm trying to say is...

"Yeah, well... That's just like... your opinion, man."

Like, on Cure's Pornography, I'd totally take The Figurehead over One Hundred Years. Or Radiohead, I don't think I'd take anything off of Kid A, but if I had to, it'd probably be Morning Bell or Everything in its Right Place. Idioteque is just a ripoff of IDM, and I mean, yeah, it's ok, I guess... OK, I guess I'll shut, because those are, just like... my opinion man.
posted by symbioid at 8:09 PM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm gonna guess this guy is late 40s, from the south of England somewhere and lives in London?
posted by fshgrl at 8:12 PM on May 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

The blog name and idea alone excited me but then I csaw all the links and fell in MeFi love. Can't wait to go through all of these, thanks so much unilateral!
posted by that silly white dress at 8:16 PM on May 21, 2014

Like, on Cure's Pornography, I'd totally take The Figurehead over One Hundred Years.

posted by philip-random at 8:19 PM on May 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I like the shameless arbitrariness of a Top 143 list.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:33 PM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nobody ever says how the bass line of the Pixies "Tame" is taken from "Lucretia My Reflection," but yep, there it is.

My quibble: "The Killing Moon" over "Rescue"?
posted by escabeche at 8:43 PM on May 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Isn't the Blind Boys cut a foxtrot?
posted by Chitownfats at 8:44 PM on May 21, 2014

An odd definition of the world and of all time. Seems lacking in entries prior to 1950 and songs outside the English speaking world.
posted by humanfont at 8:53 PM on May 21, 2014

An odd definition of the world and of all time. Seems lacking in entries prior to 1950 and songs outside the English speaking world.

b b bb but that would mean it's ... subjective
posted by Sebmojo at 9:10 PM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

And now, for no reason at all, here's Etta James singing Fool That I Am. More recently, a devastating version from Le Sacre du Tympan. No slight to Etta, but this one froze me in my tracks when I heard it: I almost literally couldn't move until it finished. And the original from 1946.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:11 PM on May 21, 2014

I'm gonna guess this guy is late 40s, from the south of England somewhere and lives in London?

49, Northampton* and unclear, but probably. So yeah.

I used to enjoy his writing in the NME many years ago, so I'm inclined to think that this will be worth paying attention to.

*Which in spite of the name is pretty much in the south of England, yeah.
posted by Pink Frost at 9:16 PM on May 21, 2014

What, not this yet he included that?

Okay, thread over.
posted by Decani at 10:23 PM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

*Which in spite of the name is pretty much in the south of England, yeah.

ITYM it's the magical, mythical heart of England.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:39 PM on May 21, 2014

I feel like this guy is trying really hard to choose good but somewhat obscure tracks over best tracks. Groovy Times is the best song by The Clash? I mean, I know that this is subjective and everything but is there anyone else on the planet with ears that thinks that is the best Clash song? Also, Be My Wife is the best song by David Bowie? And so on.
posted by ill3 at 12:24 AM on May 22, 2014

I did a small spotify playlist, some are missing.
posted by vayan at 3:42 AM on May 22, 2014

First, anything that claims to be "of all time" but only goes back 60 years (and only picking one song from that decade) is stupid.

Second, looking just at the 1960s part of the list, this guy has a very strange concept of "best." Several songs are OK. Almost none are especially good. There are large numbers of actually great songs not listed.

I thought maybe he was listing songs he thought were underrated, or ignored, or something, but no: "the very best songs ever committed to vinyl, disc, tape or the ether." This list is not even remotely that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:07 AM on May 22, 2014

It's almost as though musical taste is subjective or something!
posted by mippy at 4:42 AM on May 22, 2014

Also, I love The First Picture of You to the point that I might even pick it as a Desert Island Disc should I ever be asked to do so. Wistfulness makes all the best popsongs.
posted by mippy at 4:46 AM on May 22, 2014

I'd forgotten abut Beyond Belief. I generally find Elvis post-79 hard to get into, but I like the way the melody of that song wanders around.

If I were to pick a single EC song, I'd probably go with the demo (faster) version of Green Shirt.
posted by mippy at 4:52 AM on May 22, 2014

Yeah, minor quibbles so far (I'd pick True Faith over Regret for New Order, and Where Is My Mind instead of Debaser for the Pixies), but there's a good amount of stuff I haven't seen before and I'm going to enjoy listening through it all. Thanks for the post!
posted by A dead Quaker at 5:00 AM on May 22, 2014

No "Good King Wenceslas"?
posted by thelonius at 5:42 AM on May 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I feel like this guy is trying really hard to choose good but somewhat obscure tracks over best tracks.

I think he's choosing tracks that are important to him, which is all one can do, ultimately.

(When Q or Pitchfork do the N Greatest Songs of All Time they're more trolling for hits or copies sold.)

Given all the different kinds of writing he's done, it's interesting that he finds the voice of NME Journalist so easy to slip back into. I like Mr Collins a lot, and am as interested in things he likes as much as I am in anyone else I find agreeable [virtual] company. And I'm infinitely more interested in reading about what people like and why they like it than in what they dislike (even if they have impeccable reasons and I agree with them completely).
posted by Grangousier at 5:53 AM on May 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I did this years ago, but it's consigned to oblivion now.
posted by jonmc at 7:13 AM on May 22, 2014

no Bee Gees? No Can? No Tiny Tim?

I like the shameless arbitrariness of a Top 143 list.

First, anything that claims to be "of all time" but only goes back 60 years (and only picking one song from that decade) is stupid.

I feel like this guy is trying really hard to choose good but somewhat obscure tracks over best tracks.

I think he's choosing tracks that are important to him, which is all one can do, ultimately.

Okay. Full reveal. I did something like this recently as a series of radio shows, completed a little less than a year ago. Except my list was way bigger, 1111 selections (shamelessly arbitrary indeed), reflective of compiling my original "shortlist" and then deciding I wanted to play pretty much everything on it, and then choosing a number that looked interesting.

There was also a fictional element as there always is when philip-random is involved in something. And there were various rules. For instance, everything had to be on vinyl I either owned or had easy access to (ie: accessible via the radio station's neglected archives). And nothing since summer 2000 (because that's when the list started getting compiled) or before summer 1965 ... "Because bluntly, that's when LSD hit the culture in a palpable way. That's when the Apocalypse got interesting. That's when the story I'm interested in kicked into gear. If I had to nail a particular moment, I'd say, easy. That snare shot at the beginning of Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone. That was the sound of the door getting kicked wide open."

Except Like A Rolling Stone (the studio version anyway) wasn't on the list, because the subtitle for the thing was The 1,111 Greatest Records You Probably Haven't Heard. Because I had no interest in going where the likes of Mojo, Rolling Stone, Uncut, Spin etc had gone before me. Also, there's just so much great yet contentious pop material -- records I may once have loved, but over time, I've grown allergic to due to over exposure.

Anyway, I commend anybody that does something like this, because I love the way such lists question the "official history" and, more important, expose me to brilliant stuff I've never heard (or wasn't paying proper attention to the first time around). I love the way they tell me that the world I've been living in is far richer than I imagined. Also I just love it when people people commit to their obsessions.

By the way, if you're interested, you can find my list etc via the website link on my profile. I also posted it to Projects, but nobody liked it.
posted by philip-random at 9:33 AM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love the way such lists question the "official history" and, more important, expose me to brilliant stuff I've never heard (or wasn't paying proper attention to the first time around).

OK, but this list isn't doing that. There's no way Wild Horses or Marrakesh Express or Tell Me That it Isn't True were unheard or not paid attention to, let alone being "very best songs ever." None of them are even the best song by those artists in that period, or even close to it.I honestly think this list's failure goes beyond being different from my tastes and lurches way over into no discernible taste at all.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:39 AM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's funny how some people really really really can't wrap their head around the "taste is subjective" concept. ("Yes, but this person's preferences are actually wrong.")
posted by neroli at 2:54 PM on May 22, 2014

Andrew writes:
Much appreciated. I’ve had almost 3,000 visits to the blog today, which is most unusual. Thanks for the post.
posted by unliteral at 3:50 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just before the thread closes, an update:
- The Waterboys, The Whole Of The Moon (1985) [this is a song that takes you by the lapels, orders you a drink and puts you in its mood.]
- DJ Scott La Rock, Blastmaster KRS One & D-Nice, South Bronx (1986) [Call me shallow, call me a colonial, but I was electrified by the whole thing.]
- The Eagles, Hotel California (1976) [How did this intoxicating picaresque, this cinematic allegory, this nightmare vision of the American Dream, ever get filed away under “boring” or “middle of the road”?]
- Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (1966) [the very height of musical expertise, of knowing what goes where and how.]
- Eric B & Rakim, Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix), 1987 [an example of the sixth sense of sublime sampling]
posted by unliteral at 10:33 PM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

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