This is an exercise in subjectivity. I think too often many of us (especially myself) get caught up in thinking that there is an “objective” way to rank, appraise, evaluate, or even understand works of art. It happens in film (“well this movie deserves the best picture oscar because it’s objectively the best made movie of the year”), in painting and what I’ll call the visual arts (“van Gogh is objectively the best artist of all time because of the way he builds on and melds the styles prominent at the time”), and of course in music (“Slash is the best guitarist because his solos are incredibly fast and require more dexterity and virtuosic prowess than any other guitarist”). The problem is that as badly as we want to officially and objectively rank and rate various forms of art, art is something that will forever be entirely subjective because of its very nature.
Stack up Slash (Guns ‘n Roses, Velvet Revolver, Slash); Albert Hammond Jr. (The Strokes, Albert Hammond Jr.); and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) against each other as guitarists and despite the arguments that can be made that may seem objective, which one you argue is the best guitarist is completely subjective. When we attempt to give “objective” reasons why one is the best, all we’re doing is saying what we like in a guitarist and what we think is most important in guitarists. In no way can we ever make an objective and definitive statement that one is better than the other. Slash is known for his incredibly quick solos, use of a wah pedal, and blues-inspired composing. You could argue that solos are the true measure of a guitarists talent and because they require expert skill and intricate knowledge of keys and scales. By that token, you might say that Slash is the best of the three because his solos are distinctly faster and more prominent than either of the two others. But all you’re really communicating there is that you subjectively value solos.
You could just as easily make the case that Kurt Cobain is the best of the three because of how revolutionary and original his guitar style was and how much impact it had on music for decades to come. There you’re saying you value guitarists that break previous molds of playing and whose style becomes popular enough for people to want to copy it. Similarly, you could say that Albert Hammond Jr. is the best of the three because of his varying guitar sounds and styles, his cohesive work with Nick Valensi to create The Strokes signature sound, and his ability to both create memorable hooks and riffs and play intricate solos only when it fits the song. As you can see, really any argument for who or what the “best” is in an art can be dressed up to seem objective, but any “objective” argument is simply communicating what a certain person values in that form of art. One person could say “Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnson is the best song ever, and another person could say “Oops, I Did It Again” by Brittany Spears is the best song ever and at the end of the day nobody can prove either of them right or wrong.
This is all a reminder to myself as much as it is a discussion with whoever might choose to read this, because I’m a person that has always gotten caught up with objectivity in art. I’ve made lists on who “objectively” the best musicians are, or what “objectively” the best movies are. It took me a long time to realize just what I’ve been talking about, that there is no objectivity in art, and that’s exactly what makes it so beautiful. So here it is, my incredibly subjective list of the Top 10 Best Songs Ever. It’s worth noting that while both are inherently subjective, this list does not look like my “Top 10 Favorite Songs” list would (which I might post after this). That list is fairly fluid and doesn’t involve any analysis. It simply ranks songs by how much I enjoy them. While enjoyment is absolutely a factor here, and while again this list is just as subjective as a favorite songs list, it is more analytic and a little more set in stone for me. Like I alluded to before, this list is going to take into account the things I value in music, including but not limited to guitar playing, originality, composition, lyrics, and replay value. So they’re both subjective lists, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same list. That said, here we go:
20. “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” by Against Me!
Starting off this list is one of my all time favorite bands, with one of my all time favorite and inspirational frontwomen singing a beautiful duet with the very talented and typically uncredited Tegan Quin. Besides the vocals of Laura Jane Grace and Tegan Quin working perfectly with each other, almost building one each other throughout the song’s progression, what really makes this song special is its portrayal of anxiety and doubt both in the context of a relationship and not. The chorus, executed beautifully by both vocalists, even if Grace’s vocals do cover Quin’s a bit, will ring true to anyone who suffers from anxiety of any kind: “Too much momentum / This room feels like it’s going to explode / Too many angles / Too many factors to cover… / …You have to fight to stay in control of the situation / They fall apart so easily.” It’s one of the earlier signs that Grace is both writing from and singing from a place of deep anxiety, which registered with me so quickly when I first heard the song. The minimalistic approach Against Me! takes on the instrumental part of the song is, well, instrumental to the success of Grace’s lyrics. Lightly strummed chords, two unique voices singing partially in call and response and partially finishing each other’s sentences, building up to the tumultuous chorus, and then the part of the song that I believe takes “Borne” from good to great. Grace spits “Anxiety, anxiety, you give me no mercy / Grind my teeth smooth and flat in my sleep” over the now heavy, distorted guitars with flashes of bright toned leads and thunderous drums that seem to take their ques from Grace’s intense scream and intonation. Those lyrics alone are precious in their own right, but the delivery is beyond what you can expect as a fan, it’s beyond what you think is possible of the song from its modest intro.
Against Me!’s delivery of those two lines does something incredible each time I listen to it: it releases at least some of the anxiety I am constantly carrying around with me. It takes something special for a song to be able to do that, much less a song that’s actually written about anxiety. Depression is easily captured in music and it has been for centuries. Mania can be portrayed through music if one knows what they’re doing. The pain of trauma can be relayed in many ways. But anxiety is a special beast, because it is so wide ranging in the way it affects people, perhaps; or perhaps because everybody, even those who don’t have mental illnesses (e.g. neurotypicals), experiences it, and many don’t know it when they feel it. Whatever the reason, I’ve found that in my experience with music, anxiety is the one thing that I can point to, that seems to be incredibly difficult for musicians to convey solely through music. That’s why this song is special. Because, yes, the lyrics brilliantly convey anxiety and doubt, and yes, Laura and Tegan’s vocals are executed perfectly to convey those emotions, but it’s the fact that the entire band is up to the challenge so to speak. Every part of this song works to convey something that so many artists struggle to convey, and as beautiful as the lyrics and vocals are, if you took them away the music would still convey anxiety. For someone who has struggled with anxiety disorders my entire life, that’s indescribably important.
OK, TIME OUT…
Before we go any further, I want to go ahead and clear up some waters that may become muddied otherwise. I’m not an expert in rap or hip/hop. I’m a white kid that grew up in an upper middle class family in the suburbs of literally the whitest city in the US (Portland, OR – seriously, 72.2% white), going to Catholic elementary, middle, and high school (except for senior year). My rap knowledge was pretty much limited to Eminem and Kanye West until maybe starting 5-7 years ago. It took me a shamefully long time to even listen to 2pac, N.W.A., Nas, Dr. Dre, or Common on the more old school front, and even Nicki Minaj, Kid Cudi, Kendrick, or Lil Wayne. I really didn’t give 2Pac’s music a decent chance until after I saw Straight Outta Compton, which I really only had interest in seeing because when I was growing up, a friend of my older brother’s was really into to hip-hop culture and history and would tell us some of the history of the gangsta’ rap days. So make no mistake, I know that not only am I wholly unqualified to make judgements on rap/hip-hop, I’m also wholly unqualified to say the words “gangsta’ rap” out loud.
So while in many places on this list where I’m more comfortable with the genres and know them better, I would absolutely say “yes this is the best classic rock song in my opinion” or “yes this is the best pop-punk song in my opinion,” when it comes to the rap tracks on this list, that’s not something I’m comfortable claiming. Not only am I incredibly inexperienced in Hip-hop and Rap, it’s also not my music to judge. It’s not my culture. It didn’t spring from the mistreatment of my people. And I as a person do not have any right to claim this very real and and very cultural and racial music as my own. And I take that very seriously. Now, that’s also technically true about all rock music and rock subgenres. And I think that’s important to acknowledge, but at this point I think the blues music that artists like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and Elvis flat out stole has been so bastardized over the last 50+ years, it’s hard to know where to put Nu Metal/Dubstep in regards to cultural appropriation. Also I’m getting way off track here and that’s kind of an endless discussion so back to the point. When I put like, Kanye West’s “Power” on my list of the best songs ever, it says nothing about its place in the rap world, it’s impact on hip-hop history, or whether or not it would even make a Top 10 Rap Songs list. The only thing its placement here means, is that to me, it is one of the best songs I have ever had the honor of listening to, regardless of genre. If no other moment in this list communicates it, it’s this placement that should tell you something very fundamental about this list: it’s a list built around my experience with music. Essentially, that’s what I’m arguing every “objective” list is, but it is pivotal for me to communicate here that if we had a venn diagram of my experience with music… oh we do? I’m being told that’s exactly what we have. Cool!
Yeah so that’s about right. Most importantly for this, you see that my knowledge of hip-hop/rap is incredibly limited. The rest of this is just a jumble. Technically “The Blues” should encompass all of “Classic Rock” and more because you don’t get “Classic Rock” if you don’t have Blues and Rhythm & Blues and artists like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling stones to steal those genres. Same with Jazz which was stolen and appropriated into Classic Rock but isn’t even on here because I know so little about Jazz that it becomes like looking at a picture of earth taken from space and trying to find a specific ant. But that’s beside the point. The point is, when I put a rap song on this list, I’m taking it as a song that I have heard and loved and am judging the same way I judge a pop-punk song or a post-grunge song. I am in no way attempting to go beyond my depth and comment on rap music as a whole. You’ll notice there are only a few rap songs on this list, I think just one R&B song (and same goes for that), no blues songs (which already makes this list fraudulent in the larger sense of things), and no jazz songs (which adds an exclamation point). We’ll discuss this later more in depth but I felt the need to point it out here before you see a rap song on this list so you can take it with context and oh so many grains of salt.
19. “Why (feat. Anthony Hamilton)“ by Jadakiss
Jadakiss and Anthony Hamilton deliver one of the best examples of a politically and socially conscious protest song that I have ever come across in “Why.” It takes not only a brilliant mind but a patient songwriter to build a song asking a million questions and leave it to the listener to realize there’s one answer for all those questions. Of course for the most part, Jadakiss knows that the only listeners who might miss the message, that one singular answer, are people like me: white, suburban, wealthy kids who don’t experience what he’s talking about, which, obviously, is racism. I didn’t get it the first few times I listened. Even listening more recently as I continue to try to educate myself on racial injustice and racism in America, it took me a while. And the beautiful thing about the songwriting here, is that if you do miss the message for a bit like I did, when you finally get it, you don’t simply realize that he’s talking about racism without ever saying the word, you also realize that the reason you didn’t get at first is exactly what he’s talking about: how wealthy white people are afforded privileges that give us a life so drastically different from many people of color that even when we’re confronted with racism, we may not even recognize it without it being shoved in our face. Boldly, that’s what Jadakiss refuses to do here, shove the issue in the face of those that need to recognize it the most. Because often when a person being oppressed speaks loudly enough for oppressors to hear it, instead of waking up, those in the privileged class tend to selfishly defend themselves, missing the greater point. Jadakiss doesn’t risk this, even though he knows he’d be in the right to take that approach. Instead he lets his 3 verses of questions that all lead to the same answer reach the ears it reaches without caring about the people who it will never reach because he knows they wouldn’t allow themselves to hear it anyway. Obviously I’m making a lot of assumptions on behalf of Jadakiss here, but I think they’re in line. And I think his approach to this song is almost unparallelled among protest songs or songs about injustice.
All of that, the brilliant concept of the song, the expert songwriting, isn’t even to mention the magnificent hook that Anthony Hamilton brings home. His voice is as soulful as the hook, “All that I’ve been given / Is this pain that I’ve been living / They got me in the system / Why they gotta do me like that?” Hamilton sings that second line with all the pain in his voice that the line requires. This deep-cutting chorus complements perfectly with Jadakiss’s hard-hitting verses. The song doesn’t need this to be great, but the music video adds even more power to it. It’s an exceptionally well made visual experience that goes along with this masterpiece of a song.
18. “Wonderful” by Everclear
Everclear is easily one of the most underrated bands of the 90’s, and despite how incredible “Santa Monica” is, it’s “Wonderful” that serves as their magnum opus. If this song doesn’t make you at least choke up if not get full on teary eyed, then you are completely entitled to your own emotional reaction and I have no right to belittle or degrade you for it. Yeah. Didn’t see that coming did you? Anyway, this song makes this list for me because of its intense emotional impact. The lyrics aren’t particularly subtle, but they’re not “hit you over the head with their meaning” obvious either. They’re in a sweet spot right in between, where it’s possible to hum along to the song without getting what the song is about, but once you tune into them, it’s hard not to understand the journey they’re taking you on.
First off, I’ve never heard a song tackle nostalgia quite as well as “Wonderful” does. With lines like “I want things that I had before / Like a Star Wars poster on my bedroom door / I wish I could count to ten / And make everything be wonderful again.” It’s not an unrealistic nostalgia that’s too caught up in the past to recognize the future, it’s a full bodied nostalgia that recognizes the pain of the present, the innocence of the past, and even goes so far as to recognize the pain of the past and how imperfect that innocence was, how it would only cause more pain in the present to pretend like the past was perfect. This song attacks so many different topics from so many different angles that if you were to list them all out and show them to someone who’s never heard the song before they would understandably thing it’s and over-ambitious hot mess of emotional manipulation. The beauty of the song is that it’s so far from that. There are no hiccups in its flow that make it seem like Everclear is taking on too much here, it simply flows perfectly in and out of the range of topics that build the song. The emotional journey starts with childlike innocence in lines like, “Hope my mom and I hope my dad / Will figure out why they get so mad / Hear them scream, I hear them fight / Say bad words that make me want to cry”…”I feel better when I hear them say / Everything will be wonderful some day.” The journey comes to a head as the song builds to a climactic bridge seeing the narrator leaving behind that innocence and instead distraught in his frustration at his current relationship, singing “I don’t wanna hear you say / I will understand someday… / …I don’t wanna hear you say / We both have grown in a different way … / …I don’t wanna hear you tell me everything is wonderful now.”
There are so many ways to describe this song. It’s a journey from the innocence of youth to the jadedness of adulthood. It’s the story of a child who learned too early not to believe promises. It’s a contrast between the relationship of a child with their parents and the relationship between to romantic partners. It’s raising the question of whether it’s better to be naive or jaded, which one hurts the most, which one leads to the more difficult life. And all of it works because of the childlike, innocent singing and lyrics in the beginning which singer Art Alexakis perfectly portrays, and the strained, frustrated, pained wail he’s able to transition to when the song shifts to adulthood. It’s easily one of the best written and best executed songs I’ve heard, which is saying a lot with how ambitious it is.
17. “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill) [feat. Akon, Lil Wayne, & Niia]” by Wyclef Jean
With the anchoring line from Method Man’s hook in “C.R.E.A.M.” by The Wu Tang Clan from their classic debut Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) – Cash Rules Everything Around Me, this song soars from there. Wyclef’s socially conscious lyrics tracking a girl from the innocence of grade school who the narrator had a crush on as he grew up with her to the hard reality seeing her position forcing her into a life of prostitution. This song has so many heart-wrenching lines, but it’s not emotionally manipulative. It’s not Sarah McLaughlin playing over ASPCA commercials. It’s the artistic and respectful painting of a life that’s much more common than a lot of people in this country realize. Wyclef, with the help of Akon, Lil Wayne, and Niia, not only depicts this micro example of the overemphasis on money and how detrimental it can be to the poor, he also peppers in the overarching theme of greed and broken economies with lines like those opening “Some live for the bill / Some kill for the bill.” His storytelling brilliance is clear in how he, not unlike the writers of the last entry, Everclear, seamlessly moves from innocence “High school she was the girl who make me do the hula hoop around the gym / (Just to get a peek again, she’s a ten)” to the end of that same verse where he’s pouring out heartbreaking lyrics of “She ended up in a road car, bruised up, scarred hard / All he wanna know is (where my money at?).” And then the chorus that ties it all together harkening back to Wu, “Imma tell you, like Wu told me / Cash rules everything around me.” All those pieces fit together so beautifully to bring together a work of art with gems dropping in all the way throughout it like my favorite of Lil Wayne’s verse, coming at a point in the story where being in prostitution is the least of the woman’s problems, “And then she runs to the pastor / And he tells her there will be a new chapter / But she feels no different after / And then she asks him, ‘where my money at?'” Again, heartbreaking, but I never once get the sense that this song is about pulling emotions from me. Because it’s not. It’s about communicating a message and it’s so impressive that with so many people on board in the song that they all came together so perfectly, executed their songwriting and their parts of the song with the same brilliance Wyclef brought from the concept up.
16.”The Kids Aren’t Alright“ by Fall Out Boy
Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump are one of the best songwriting teams in rock music. And the most underappreciated. That underappreciation obviously stems from the idea that Fall Out Boy is among the group of “emo” bands that don’t deserve respect. Emo or not, Fall Out Boy is band with incredible skill, and that goes for all four members. Now, I’m a gigantic Fall Out Boy fan; been to see them once on their Folie a Deux Tour in Portland and Twice while on tour for Save Rock and Roll (Save Rock and Roll Arena Tour, Monumentour). They’re without a doubt one of my favorite bands and there’s very few songs from them I don’t like. That being said, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” is on an entirely different level from the rest of their stuff. It transcends any wave of pop-punk. The lyrics are beautiful, as I usually go to first. They’re a little enigmatic, not exactly straight forward in meaning, but they have a fantastic feel to them and the fact that they’re open for interpretation makes them all the more powerful. From, “And with the black banners raised as the crooked smiles fade / Former heroes who quit too late / Just wanna fill up the trophy case again” to the nostalgic chorus,”And in the end / I’d do it all again / I think you’re my best friend” the lines flow off Patrick Stump’s tongue like water down a long cascade. The song is filled with gems like those, my favorite being “It twists my head just a bit too thin / All those people in those old photographs I’ve seen are dead.” It’s a song made up of lines like all of those. It’s one of those songs that you can listen to 100 times and still find something new in it. That’s not to mention how wonderfully the music is executed, as well as the fact that it may well be the best vocal performance of Patrick Stump’s career.
15. “Flaws” by Bastille
Bastille are relative newcomers to the pop/rock/alternative scene(s), and being that this song has been out less than four years at the time I’m writing this, having been released in March of 2013, there are a good many people who would say that it hasn’t earned the right to be considered one of the best songs of all time. That’s all well and good. And it’s perfectly acceptable to use how a song holds up over time as a criterion for ranking the best songs of all time (because, as the whole point of this is, it’s perfectly acceptable to use anything as a criterion), however, as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I do not tend to care much about that particular criterion, and “Flaws” is a perfect reason why I don’t.To me, “Flaws” is a beautiful example of what it means to make great music right now. And I believe that great music is great music, which is why the great songs hold up over time.
The first thing I go to with this song is lyrics. Dan Smith has a way with lyrics that has given me profound respect for him since I started getting into Bastille after I saw them at Summerfest in Wisconsin. Since then, while I have several favorites from what is now a group that started out as essentially a solo project from both Bad Blood and Wild World, “Flaws” has stuck with me on a very emotional level, largely because of its lyrics. Dan Smith writes relatable lyrics, he writes grandiose lyrics, he writes lyrics that dissect the world in the moment, but I believe “Flaws” is his greatest lyrical accomplishment to date.Lines like those plucked from the chorus, “You have always worn your flaws upon your sleeve / And I have always buried them deep beneath the ground” are simple enough on the surface, but reach so deep within the listener that, for me, it can be an intensely emotional experience listening to the song.
Smith is sneakily poetic as he muses about the nature of faults, flaws, and shortcomings. And the beauty of the lyrics is not to discount the fantastic musicianship on the song. The simple synth pattern that along with the percussion takes the song in and out as if the song was driven by the tide, building, breaking, crashing upon the sand, and smoothly coming back to the ocean.A perfect example of the music and lyrics working almost effortlessly together comes in a section later in the song after one of those swelling choruses, with the instrumental tracks receding inwards to a more quiet and minimalistic role as Smith begins to answer the central question the song has been asking, singing “All of my flaws and all of your flaws / When they have been exhumed / We’ll see that we need them to be who we are / Without them we’d be doomed.”
It’s a simple song. But its simplicity is what allows it to cut right to the heart of the listener; its poetry is not being overwhelmed by overly-intricate and distracting beats or hooks. It’s a simple enough message. But the way Dan Smith tackles it, leaving it all out there and refusing to brashly shove it in the listener’s face is one of the things that make the song so emotional, so powerful, and indeed, so deserving of being called one of the best songs of all time.
14. “Bohemian Rhapsody“ by Queen
I mean you had to know this song was coming eventually. As iconic as this song is, with the Wayne’s World and all the other movies it’s been used in, and really just achieving a level of fame that few other songs have where you really come to just assume that everybody everywhere knows it and can sing along to it. And that level of fame didn’t just come because it was a #1 hit at the right time, or for a long time (it piqued at #2 on the Hot 100 – “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust” both charted at #1). The fame of “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes more for its unparallelled vocal performance(s) – it is one of the only songs where I can listen and say “oh my god those backing vocals and harmonies are spectacular”; it comes from being the magnum opus of one of the best singers we’ve heard in the modern era of music; it comes from having a guitar solo that, due to its tone, versatility, and innovative technique, has been placed on the pantheon of guitar solos; it comes from an operatic construction that has not been parallelled and likely will never be parallelled. There are far too many facets of this song to deconstruct and explain why it sits in my top 20. There may be some question as to why it’s not higher, well, that’s a testament to the songs above it.
13. “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay
This is actually one of the first songs that I heard and I knew immediately that it was on a completely different level than your average pop or rock song. First of all, the fact that it’s the standout song on what I believe to be one of the best albums of the last two decades at least in Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is impressive to say the least. That album is stacked with brilliant composing, beautiful instrumentals, and mystifying lyrics with an overall sound that not only fits the content but sets it apart from anything else. It’s a masterpiece of an album. But to me, the lead single is heads and shoulders above the rest of the album, and no, that doesn’t change what I just said about the album.”Viva la Vida” is a beautiful, emotive, and sublime journey. I don’t think Chris Martin’s vocal skills truly found a home until this song was made. I honestly couldn’t tell you what it’s about because I’ve never felt the need to look it up and when I hear it, while the lyrics are absolutely beautiful and fit the song (or maybe the song fits them) perfectly, I’m not thinking about what they mean. Every time I hear it I’m compelled to just be in the experience, which I’m sure is something you’re tired of me saying, or if you’re not, you likely will be.Much like a song that’s coming up on this little countdown, every piece of the music contributes to a whole which is so much greater than the sum of its parts. The keys are simply, but they create the emotional backbone of the song along with the brilliant percussion. But what elevates this song is the vocal melody. It’s able to be catchy, without being gimmicky and without wearing on you over time. It’s simple, but it doesn’t sound like anything else (Joe Satriani’s questionable lawsuit aside). And key to the song’s success, Chris Martin sings his heart out like I’ve never heard him do before or since. Simply put, it’s a song that no other band could have made, and a song that music as a whole is better because it was made.
12. “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin
Drums and Guitar. That is the powerful base of this song that leads it into one of the best listening experiences of all time. I have a hard time putting Led Zeppelin on this list because of all the songs they’ve stolen to get where they sit today. I have no respect for Robert Plant as a songwriter, but there is no denying that Jimmy Page is one of the greatest rock guitarists and that John Bonham was one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. And that’s what this song hedges on along with John Paul Jones’ solid, down to earth bass work. What I love about Jimmy Page’s guitar work is that he ventures away from the more amateurish songwriting decisions like the solo that clunkily cut “Heartbreaker” into two different halves, or the sloppy but showy solo of “Whole Lotta Love.” Instead, he brings slide guitar into the song and beautifully works between a strong riff and the bluesy slide guitar “mini-solos” that not only fit the song perfectly, but are emotive and phenomenal to listen to. When you start looking at the the thunderous drum work of John Bonham on that drives this song from start to finish, it’s enough to make it an instrumental masterpiece regardless of what Robert Plant is doing.
11.”Smells Like Teen Spirit“ by Nirvana
“Oh of course it’s that song” and “what you don’t listen to them enough to put a better song on here?” and all that because obviously “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the most overplayed, overused, overrated, universally recognizable, iconic song from a band whose leader despised Nirvana’s super-fame and “fake” fans. That emergence into the mainstream led Kurt, Krist, and Dave to take it out of their setlists in later shows both because Cobain grew to resent the entire Nevermind album, and as a way to root out those “fake” fans at their shows. He also spoke frequently and openly about how when he wrote the song he was trying to rip off the Pixies because he admired them so much. Other comments have been made about how he felt the song’s riff felt like a Boston song. So Cobain himself would never have put this song on any list of the best of all time. And likely neither would most Nirvana fans, arguing that some deeper cuts would be better suited.
Well, I am certainly not Kurt Cobain, and hope that I will never claim such a thing, and I’m also not “most Nirvana fans.” Again, this list is as objective as it can be, viewed through my perspective. First of all, I have a great deal of respect for Cobain’s artistic and cultural sensibilities, but I can’t say I share the same views on conformity and the concept of “selling out.” I think the impact that this song had on music, signing the name “Nirvana” indelibly to cultural history is, if anything, a positive characteristic. However even without this song’s wide-reaching fame, I believe that it’s the most bold musically and the most lyrically interesting song that the band every produced. The fact that Cobain created a riff in the intro here that was so powerful that essentially every guitarist since the mid-nineties has wanted to learn it, and learn it quickly, is a testament to Cobain’s raw talent with the guitar and his songwriting skills on the instrument. Then what he likens to The Pixies in the soft/loud/soft dynamics of the song is another stroke of brilliance that, while it was made in the spirit of the Pixies, sets itself apart in the genre we’ve come to know as “Alternative,” nebulous as that is.
But what I feel really separates this song from other Nirvana songs is the lyrics. Now, maybe I’m exposing my inability to comprehend abstract lyrics here, but through the body of Nirvana’s work, I don’t think it’s Cobain’s skill as a lyricist that made them the great band they were. He mostly wrote lyrics in a way that seemed to be putting unconnected words by each other in a rhythm. Many of his songs I find myself asking “okay but what’s the point?” I think his biggest talent, vocally, was the unique quality of his voice, and a brilliance for creating uncommon but incredibly catchy vocal melodies. But then, of course, he had some lyrical gems. More than just a few. “Teen Spirit,” however, is his greatest lyrical gem, which is why I have it on this list. Even just the opening lines, “load up on guns / and bring your friends / it’s fun to lose and to pretend” are packed with meaning that I’m not the right person to unpack. But unlike many Nirvana songs it doesn’t leave me feeling like it just sounds profound but is in fact meaningless. When I hear the lyrics of “Teen Spirit” like the loud shouts of the chorus lines “with the lights out, it’s less dangerous / here we are now, entertain us” I do get the feeling that there’s something beyond even the palpable irony that the song is soaked in.
10. “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine
Whew. Where do I even start with this song. I guess first of all is that there’s not a damn thing wrong with it. Maybe some songs of Battle for Los Angeles showcase Zach de la Rocha’s furious vocal capabilities a little better or show him expanding his lyrical content. Maybe there are a few riffs in Rage’s repertoire that hit harder than this. But there is not a song in RATM’s catalogue that as a whole hits harder than this. Every time I listen to this song it catches my heart. It doesn’t invite me, it drags me into the experience of the song. I can’t hear it without clenching my jaw, nodding my head and tapping my toe to the beat, and mouthing the words “and now you do what they told you,” or any other lyric that de la Rocha repeats and builds and repeats and builds. It’s an aggressive indictment of police brutality, established white social hierarchies, and white power groups like the KKK that de la Rocha essentially calls out by name a few times in the song, most notably in “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.”
We’ve talked about protest songs before on this list, but de la Rocha brings, in perfect synergy with the rhythm section of RATM, some of the most pump-your-fist, think-about-your-privilege, use-your-anger-to-make-the-world-better vocals and lines that I can remember hearing. Because they are and were speaking to mostly white audiences. That’s one of the differences between this and other protest songs. This isn’t Green Day’s American Idiot where they stood as liberals and punks giving George Bush the middle finger, and most of their crowd was going to be in the same camp as them. This isn’t even Hendrix’s brilliant wordless protest of the Vietnam war through his composition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock to probably the biggest gathering of anti-war hippies ever.
Rage Against the Machine is speaking violently against racism, anti-blackness, white power groups, the white establishment… to metalheads. Now if you don’t think there was some crossover between metalheads and white supremacists, you are definitely wrong. They didn’t have to be in the KKK to say “a black man can’t play metal music” without realizing the man who shredded sweetly enough to make them want to wear the top hat they’re wearing is black, or to beat the crap out of a person of color at a concert because “they didn’t belong.” Now, de la Rocha, being of Mexican descent on his father’s side was already breaking that “all white metal” taboo, but that didn’t mean there was a whole lot of diversity in the crowd. So when he and RATM came out with this fierce protest song on behalf of people of color, primarily black people, who were getting beaten and killed by racist police forces, it’s not a jump to think they lost some racist fans. Though I have a feeling they did not shed a tear for the loss of those types of fans.
This song, for everything I mentioned about de la Rocha’s fierce approach to it and the rhythm section constructing their parts perfectly in synergy with his fierce deliver, was of course helped along by one of the greatest guitarists in music history in Tom Morello. And he took a relative back seat to this song, only chiming in when his presence was needed to take things up a notch, or blow that tension with one of his virtuosic solos. No, the amount of firepower in this song is is almost unheard of, and as I said, this song is where they put everything together… perfectly.
9. “Power” by Kanye West
This song is where Kanye shows us all the genius he has from beat-making to rapping to writing verses to choosing samples to producing. For me, the only other song that comes close to it of his is on the same album in “Monster” which benefits from a monster verse from Nicki Minaj. But “Power” is another one of those “close your eyes, put your headphones one, and rock to the beat” songs. It’s an experience. The standout part of it, for me, is Kanye’s trademark, his ability to make beats that are both complex and immersive. That’s what sets the stage for this song and it takes off from there.
The early lines “screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music” is both perfect and perfectly Kanye. The song almost works so well because of how adeptly it plays off of Kanye’s public persona, especially at the time of release. Then the chorus is a force of nature, bringing the power the song’s title promises. Not to be boxed in or write a one dimensional song, though, Kanye delivers powerfully socially conscious lines like “The system broke, the school’s closed, the prison’s open / We ain’t got nothing to lose motherfucker we rollin’.” And later an almost out-of-body experience for the song where Kanye raps about his perception, his persona, saying “I embody every characteristic of the egotistic / He knows, he’s so fuckin gifted.” The songs lyrics dart from here to there almost effortlessly, so expertly intertwined with the beat that the range and scope of what he’s covering in the song hardly hit you, it just seems natural, as does really everything about this song, it just seems natural.
8. “Sons and Daughters” by The Decemberists
Colin Meloy is one of the most gifted composers of the 21st century, and it shows here. The Decemberists have a plethora of songs that could easily make my Top 10 or Top 15, but I think this song is easily their best in so many ways. The gentle build from a simple guitar riff all the way until they’re utilizing all 9 of the personnel they had for The Crane Wife (five members & four additional musicians) is absolutely sublime. Meloy’s composition makes the song (which contains a three person vocal canon and several instruments) sound simple and almost effortless, when the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.In addition, the lyrics are almost mind-numbingly brilliant. I had to look up the meaning on genius because I was curious about what was really behind the largely pleasant sounding words. The implication of a nuclear winter is probably the last thing I expected to find, and the subtlety with which Meloy conveys this is astounding. Who would have known that by “we’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon” he was singing about how they’ll have to counteract the effects of radiation (which cinnamon can be used for apparently). Additionally, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that “we’ll build our walls aluminum” was written to depict the characters in the song building radiation-proof housing, using aluminum because it can be used to reflect radioactivity. In the end, it’s a song that hits on every note in an absolutely stunning way while bringing a beautiful and unique album in The Crane Wife to a fitting end. I’ve yet to hear anything like it.
7.”Boulevard of Broken Dreams“ by Green Day
For me, this is easily Green Day’s best song to date. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” takes a step out of their comfort zone, even their comfort zone within American Idiot, and mixes a ballad with an elegy with an anthem. The tremolo intro accompanied by simple acoustic guitar is one of the most oddly iconic intros in rock music.I say oddly because it doesn’t really contain a riff, like “Walk this Way” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or even “American Idiot”. Typically rock songs have have a powerful and catchy riff to manage a truly iconic intro. This song is one of the few that manages to do so without: it’s stripped down to just an acoustic guitar strumming chords and an electric guitar with such heavy tremolo that you can’t really make out any notes. It’s a sound that will likely forever be trademarked by Green Day, and what a sound it is.
The lyrics are fairly simple, but effectively communicate the raw emotion of being alone, of living your life along. And in Billie Joe’s pop-punk accent they come across raw and from the heart. Perhaps the biggest emotional punch comes from the lines “Read between the lines / What’s fucked up and everything’s alright / Check my vital signs to know I’m still alive / And I walk alone.” Simple, yes, but it’s a song that doesn’t need to be complex, especially in context of the Rock Opera Album it stems from. As I’ve talked about with other songs, the beauty of this one is that every instrument is in sync. You could not portray loneliness better than that acoustic strum/tremolo pairing. And Billie Joe sings with a swagger that almost dares anyone to do it better. This song is a masterpiece in the key of less is more. It’s songs like this that remind people that to make a great rock song you don’t have to have blazing solos, sometimes all you need is 4-note-max lead piece in the verse to complement everything else going on without overshadowing it.
6. “SING” by My Chemical Romance
Man I can’t even explain to you how I felt when I heard this song, when Danger Days came out and I first heard “SING.” It’s one of the foundational moments in my musical life. This is one of those songs where every single piece and instrument comes together to form a unified sublime musical experience. The subversive lyrics (termed “propaganda” by Glenn Beck) establish the songs’s power right away with early lines like “Sing it out, boy they’re gonna sell what tomorrow means / Sing it out, girl before they kill what tomorrow brings.” The intensity brought by Gerard Way’s conveyance of his edgy lyrics are held up with the song’s thunderous and infectious drum beat, easily the best I’ve heard from a band that does not shy away from putting drums and percussion first (think “House of Wolves”).
For me, the track is all the more incredible based on the way it almost completely ditches MCR’s songwriting formulas and typical sound. Way’s voice is still anthemic and passionate as it was on “Welcome to the Black Parade,” but the sound and composition of the song could not be more different. The usually obvious, heavy, complementary guitar work of Frank Iero and Ray Toro is dialed back to a secondary role to the percussion, piano, and synth.In a moment any expert musicians can identify, Iero and Toro recognize this song is best not being a guitar driven song. Instead, they provide beautiful complementary pieces to the song, but do not overpower the song with hard hitting riffs like those in “Thank You for the Venom” or “Famous Last Words” or even the aforementioned “House of Wolves.”
They provide just enough tension in the Bridge, knowing when the song needs that extra kick, fueling the fierce lyrics Way spits such as “Cleaned-up corporation progress / Dying in the process” and “Buy yourself a motivation / Generation Nothing / Nothing but a dead scene.” But again, the most impressive thing isn’t any specific piece of the song, it’s that the song becomes so much more than the sum of its parts; it’s inspiring, it’s energetic, it’s about war, it’s about peace, it’s about politics, it’s about giving politics a middle finger, and overall, it takes you away from reality for what feels like so much more than four minutes and thirty seconds. It’s one of those special songs that become your reality whenever you listen to it.
5. “***Flawless“ by Beyoncé
It’s hard to overstate the impact that this song and Beyonce herself have had on 21st century feminism. To me, this is a perfect example of what political songs in their most artistic form can look like. Often politics in music are associated with Punk, from The Clash’s London Calling to Green Day’s American Idiot, but it would not only be flat out wrong, it would be a shaft to all the great political musicians in other genres to say that punk has a corner on the market of political anthems, or even to say that punk does it best. Because when I look at a typical punk political anthem, while I may love the song, many of them lack the artistry that Beyonce displays in this song and many others. Without even trying to she exposed white feminism for the underlying racism it was born with and never got rid of. Her performance of “***Flawless” at the Grammy’s complete with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech excerpts was one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. Adichie’s words bring the song to a compelling halt while also bringing more power to Beyonce’s lyrics. The use of Adichie’s speech alone is beautifully edited and just works better than any other spoken word excerpt I’ve heard in a song. And somehow, Beyonce is able to take the song from the deeply personal to the highly political without flinching. Her repetition of the line “I woke up like this / Flawless,” isn’t communicating to the listener that she’s Beyonce so she’s flawless. She’s telling every woman listening that wakes up in the morning thinking they look like crap that they are flawless.
And then there’s just the pure, sweet, brilliant musicianship of the track. The beat, of course, drives the song in a way that that’s able to work for the all of the varying topics Beyonce sings about, which is no easy feat. It’s incredibly difficult to make a beat that doesn’t just fit for one mood, but fits for several moods and scopes. The lyrics, as I’ve said, perfectly weave back and forth between the personal and political, another very difficult thing to do. And of course, Bey’s voice is what really makes this song a truly great song. I’m sure it could be a hit in someone else’s hands, because of the musical elements it brings, but nobody but Beyonce could make this song a classic. She’s effortless in delivery, yet deeply emotional under the surface. And when the song makes a stand for equality and feminism, it’s not just the song, and it’s not just a gimmick. It’s clear even without seeing her perform it, just listening to the song, that this is her taking a stand for what she believes in; inviting critics because she knows who she is and she knows what she believes in; and doing so while divulging such personal words to the listener she shows that she’s in this fight, that it’s more than just a political badge to wear sometimes, that this is her life.
4. “The Logical Song“ by Supertramp
I have no hesitation about saying that Supertramp is the most underrated band I know of. They have a litany of songs that could have easily made this list (from “Bloody Well Right” to “Goodbye Stranger” to “Take the Long Way Home” and on). What makes them so underrated is their unparalleled songwriting abilities. They used instruments that most rock bands never see (e.g. the melodica, a glass harp, a water gong, the saw, the flageolet etc.), and had regular band members playing saxophone solos, as well as one playing clarinet, tuba, trombone, and other woodwind and brass instruments, in addition to one of their lead singers playing the Flageolet, Harmonium, Cello, and Marimba all on the same album in addition to his duties on keyboards and vocals. To say this group was talented would be a criminal understatement. To say they were comparable to any other rock band shy of the 2000’s indie incursion would be criminally false. Supertramp was a band that only they could have been, and their music was the music of pure, unhampered, unrestrained creative genius.
The Logical Song, I believe, is the exclamation point on their career. Their most successful song on their most successful album (Breakfast in America), it was not one of those accidental hits that really didn’t showcase their best talents. In fact, I don’t believe they had such a song. No, “The Logical Song” is pique Supertramp, especially lyrically. They start right away with the lyrical theme of the song in the first verse “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful / A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical / And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily / Joyfully, playfully watching me / But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible / Logical, responsible, practical / And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable / Clinical, intellectual, cynical.” Already in one verse they’ve artistically taken the listener from innocent childhood to the responsibility of adulthood, but they’re nowhere near finished.
The heart-wrenching chorus is possibly some of the best lyrical work I’ve seen, “There are times when all the world’s asleep / The questions run too deep / For such a simple man / Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned / I know it sounds absurd / But please tell me who I am.” From there he goes back and forth between that quiet contemplation and soul searching to scathing rebukes of societal norms and ironic twists of society. All the while, the keyboards and bass are keeping up up with that almost whiplash back and forth and all the other instruments, whether they be in the song for just a line in the background or for a repeating lead line or several, all of them say musically what Hodgson (the singer/lyricist on this song) is singing about. It’s a musically complex song, but no instrument takes away from another. There is not a presence in the song that doesn’t belong there, and the outcome is a true classic that transcends its time.
3. “Keep Ya Head Up“ by 2Pac
Like I’ve hopefully made clear, I don’t know shit about hip-hop/rap or the culture it was birthed from or the culture that surrounds it. I know a lot of rappers I’ve heard put Biggie ahead of 2Pac; I’m not trying to even touch that argument. I don’t have the right. What I will say about 2Pac is that he is absolutely one of the best lyricists I have ever heard in my life. He’s one of the best poets I’ve ever encountered in my life. Shakespeare ain’t got shit on 2Pac, and this song is a great example why.
Released the year I was born, in 1993, this song is a feminist anthem the likes of which we hardly see (outside of Beyoncé, Nicki, and a precious few others) 23 years later in 2016. Tupac tackles so many deeply important issues in this song without allowing the song to get out of hand and shove politics down your throat like many political rock bands are guilty of. With lyrics that he raps with one of the smoothest flows I’ve ever heard like the standout section, “And since we all came from a woman / Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman / I wonder why we take from our women / Why we rape our women, do we hate our women? / I think it’s time to kill for our women / Time to heal our women, be real to our women.” And if I can say anything about that section it’s that “we” does not mean “black men” it means “men.” I can’t comment on how Tupac meant it, but as a white listener, this has to be interpreted as rape culture writ large. It goes against the spirit of the song to think “oh that’s about another community,” no, it’s about the world. And as amazing as it is that Tupac was able to write about issues that are still relevant today 23 years ago, it’s even more sad that 23 years have gone by and these are still issues that haven’t been fixed.
Aside from the politics of the song, which also goes into things like the ability to have pride in a black identity that I can’t comment on quite as much as the feminist issues he discusses, it’s the composition of the song that brings it all together. The hook, brilliantly sampled from “O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps, along with the beat, sampled from “Be Alright” by Zapp, are the glue that holds the song together as Tupac tackles the varied social issues that he strings together in this masterpiece of a song. The production by DJ Daryl is fantastically understated. It allows Pac the perfect vehicle for for a sensitive yet fairly uptempo song and allows him to hit that beautifully mellow flow while he raps about things that are anything but mellow. All in all, combining the the absolutely brilliant lyricism of the legend Tupac Shakur with the fantastic production that makes you think it could not be produced in any other way, which to me is the mark of great production and composition, this is easily one of best songs ever. It’s a song that I feel I learn something from every time I listen, whether it’s something emotional, something social or political, or something about how to make beautiful music. To me, this is one of those paramount songs for me.
2. “Hotel California“ by The Eagles
Don Henley is one of the most underrated songwriters in Rock and Pop history. His lyrics here are some of the most profound and beautiful that I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. But if it was just the exceptional lyricism that made this song great, I would have it ranked much lower. What makes this the second greatest song is the fact that the song itself is so beautiful to listen to that it took me almost a decade of listening to understand the meaning behind the lyrics, Henley’s relation of his alcoholism and entering a treatment center (supposedly). But it’s a song that you can listen to and hear something new every time. It’s a song you can listen to a thousand times and not even really listen to the lyrics because the intricate, distinctive, and almost unparalleled musicianship of the Eagles is on display just as much as Henley’s songwriting skills. This song is a completely sublime experience.
1. “All Along the Watchtower“ by Jimi Hendrix (originally by Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan is now a Nobel Poet Laureate for a reason, and the lyrics to “All Along the Watchtower” are a phenomenal example as to why. His original version of this song is a folk classic in its own right, but the Jimi Hendrix treatment took it to an entirely different level. It’s rare for an artist to say that their cover of a Bob Dylan song was more iconic than the original. Were he around today, while I’m sure he wouldn’t say so, Hendrix would certainly have the ability to say so, as it was his highest charting hit and the version that is most typically chosen for soundtracks such as the soundtrack to “Forrest Gump.”Even Dylan liked Hendrix’s version so much that as a tribute to his late friend, he’s played the song in Jimi’s style since his death. It’s not surprising that Dylan was impressed. For my money, this is the best cover I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a lot of great covers. Hendrix’s solid and passionate vocals are a perfect fit for this song and it should go without saying that the virtuosic guitar work makes his version that much more compelling. This has always been one of my favorite guitar songs, even before I came around to really appreciating Jimi’s vocal style. The strength of the opening chords along tell you that you’re in for something special.
Hendrix is just faithful enough to the original to keep what makes the song special, and he adds just enough to make the song distinctly a Jimi Hendrix song. And to me, what that means is exactly what his band is named after: the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Because it is an experience to listen to him, to see him play, and to hear this song. He’s a performer who I’ve seen play the guitar on the tape we have of him, and despite 10+ years of playing guitar and a decent – good understanding of different guitar techniques and how the great guitarists do what they do even if I can’t do it, I watch him play and I could not tell you how he does what he does.He is absolutely without question the only artist I have ever seen that was able to get to that sublime place where the music you play is more than music, and your performance is more than a performance. As musicians, we all aspire to get to that place. We try to find the blueprint for getting there. Jimi didn’t need a goddam blueprint. Jimi was the blueprint. And you can feel it in “Purple Haze,” you can feel it in “VooDoo Chile (Slight Return),” you can feel it on his haunting, profound, and awe-inspiring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and you can certainly feel it in his rendition of “All Along the Watchtower.”
Jimi was more than a once in a generation musician and artist, he may well be the only artist we ever see that is able to command the emotion of their instrument so masterfully and seemingly effortlessly. The man was bigger than music, bigger than guitar, bigger than this world. And to me, while he certainly has songs of his own poetry and lyricism that hold many of the same properties as “Watchtower,” it’s this song that is the ultimate example of who Hendrix was. It’s a song you can close your eyes to and just feel the raw power and emotion that this composition exudes. I’ve never heard anything like it (aside from Hendrix himself). Easily the best song I’ve ever heard.
What can you learn from this list? Sure some of my descriptions are relatively in depth and maybe you learn a bit that way or maybe you hear a new song. But keeping in mind what I first said, that this is an exercise in subjectivity, what you really stand to learn the most about is me. What did I cite in the explanations more than anything else: lyrics and guitar. Which plays into the fact that most of the songs on this list are by rock bands. So what that shows is that I’m heavily biased towards rock music, and what I look for in a song to determine how good it is is primarily lyrics and guitar. That is solely because of my own experience in music. Go figure: I’m a guitarist and lyricist. Biased much? Yeah! Cuz we all are. Even your highest educated Rolling Stone editor is going to have their biases. You could have three Ph.D’s in Music Composition, Music History, and The Compositional Changes of the 21st Century, and you still wouldn’t be able to compile a definitive list of the best songs of all time. The closest we get to anything definitive is when a shit ton of people vote but even that’s a mess. With any kind of list like this, it’s more about a person’s experience with music than it is about anything objective. It’s just to make and to read lists like this. But nobody can tell you your opinion is wrong in a field as subjective as music.