It is difficult to put rock music in perspective. Sure, smart people have written about rock music, and rock music is very popular, and has been so popular for so many years that old rock songs are still popular.
It could be said, that for the last three generations, rock music has become America’s poetry—shaping the sensibility of millions of young—and even old—people.
Why, then does rock still seem mindless, schlocky, obscene, and low-brow?
Because most of it is.
If literature is a polite form of sex, rock music is an art form which some feel veers too close to sex to be a socially healthy alternative to it.
But with rock’s continued popularity, it is fast becoming our religion, our poetry. It is now America’s elevator music, shopping-mall music, American Idol music, nostalgic radio and TV music, and has not stopped being our Top 40 music, even as Country and Rap sells millions. All popular American music, even jazz, is just a form of rock music. A jazz solo sounds like an electric guitar solo; folk, country, jazz, and rap fit under rock’s umbrella—not the other way around. It is all rock music, really. Sonically speaking, American art is rock. Classical music peaked in the 19th century, when America was still a relatively small and backward place; it may not be long before classical music will be a subset of rock music—and such is already the case in many musical listeners’ minds. Rock may not be the best kind of music; but right now it is the biggest sponge. Rock is currently the place where all roads lead.
The look of rock has certainly been vital to its fame in a modern, media-saturated society. The personalities, the costumes, the personal stories, the videos, the pyrotechnics, the idols, all that extra-musical material every rock fan is familiar with, is part of rock’s popularity; but rock songs still exist as rock songs: they have their profound impact, in the dark, emitted from a tiny speaker. It is finally the sound, the song, in its harmonic and emotional aurality that matters.
But why—how—has rock, this silly electrified music, scaled the heights of culture? Four basic reasons.
The best of it absorbs all other music, from classical, to jazz, to folk.
It has no avant-garde. It has not yet fallen victim to the zany and the pretentious.
It lives outside the academy. To see how dead rock music can be, watch American Idol, a display of what happens when rock is systemized, archived, sent to school, judged.
It strikes a perfect balance between writing/creating and playing/performing: both are equally important.
When rock has nothing left to rebel against, when rock has nothing left to absorb, will it finally die? And what will take its place? Right now, rock music stands alone.
The criteria for The List are as follows: Interesting All the Way Through. Rock songs thrill immediately; many good ones begin brilliantly but then we lose interest once the beat of the song is established. Great lyrics, Melody, harmony, originality, sound quality, emotional power, are all crucial.
A good List should seem inevitable, yet surprising.
A good List should not be enslaved by stars and big names, but obscurity should be avoided as well. We are talking about popular music, after all.
If some favorites are not included, one should at least feel that every type has been represented, and often in terms of origins and templates.
1. WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER –THE DOORS— Jim’s screams; a mini-symphony from the Beethoven of Rock bands.
2. BE MY BABY –THE RONETTES— Chorus agrees with singer so sweetly and exuberantly, for two minutes the world and love seem one.
3. GREEN FIELDS –THE BROTHERS FOUR— The ultimate ‘white blues’ song. Has a hushed power. Released in 1960.
4. MRS. ROBINSON– SIMON & GARFUNKLE— The energy, polish, and delicacy of late 60s S & G songs are unmatched.
5. LATHER– JEFFERSON AIRPLANE— Very few songs can truly be called mind-blowing; haunting, artistic, weird.
6. DAY IN THE LIFE– THE BEATLES— The musicians took over the control board: the final effort of an era’s performers turning profoundly and self-consciously inward. More than a song: the world’s greatest entertainers descend into the despondently poetic.
7. SEA OF LOVE –PHIL PHILLIPS— If Bach were alive in the 1950s…if Puccini were a hep cat…a catalogue of art music in two minutes.
8. CRY — JOHNNY RAY— Was he the father of rock n’ roll? This magnificent recording came out in 1951.
9. I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER –ARETHA FRANKLIN— Urban gospel jazz classical sweetness.
10. HOW SOON IS NOW –THE SMITHS — This song has it all: brain-filling sound, lyric, singer, intangible menace-melting-into-cool.
11. SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT –NIRVANA— A moment when rock looked at itself, said Oh Fuck and squirmed back.
12. LIGHT MY FIRE –THE DOORS— For about 100 days these guys were rock music and no one else was.
13. WILD THING — THE TROGGS— With a recorder solo! In terms of insouciant understatement, most iconic rock performance ever. Hold me tight.
14. WHAT’S GOIN ON? –MARVIN GAYE— Maybe the greatest pop singer ever. A delirious—and serious song.
15. LIKE A ROLLING STONE — BOB DYLAN — He made angry lyrics an art form; looking back, folk to rock was a big challenge.
16. SPACE ODDITY –DAVID BOWIE— A song that does many things; one of the great Wagnerian efforts of mature rock.
17. HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN —THE ANIMALS— On the back of an electric keyboard, a classic folk tune reaches rock immortality.
18. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN –LED ZEPPELIN— No matter what anyone says, this band’s best song. Melody, dynamics, atmosphere.
19. WILD WORLD — CAT STEVENS— The best of the ‘sincere’ singer/songwriter phenomenon from a male perspective.
20. ME AND BOBBY MCGEE –JANIS JOPLIN— She emoted in a way that was almost too good to be true.
21. VIVA LA VIDA –COLD PLAY— They could have had hits in the 60s!
22. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL –THE ROLLING STONES— They actually wrote a lot of pretty pop songs.
23. SHE LOVES YOU –THE BEATLES— It was the simple sophistication of ‘she’ loves you rather than ‘I’ love you. It was joy.
24. KANSAS CITY –LITTLE RICHARD— A British Invasion starter. A 1955 record issued in 1959 in the U.K. where Little Richard was huge, never having set foot there.
25. NOTHING COMPARES 2 U — SINEAD O’CONNOR— Big, slow beautiful ballad that came out of nowhere in the moribund 90s.
26. WHITER SHADE OF PALE — PROCOL HARUM— Help from Bach and Chaucer; a song that keeps on giving.
27. JAILHOUSE ROCK — ELVIS PRESLEY— Performer, not writer; good at choosing songs, but a truly great song never chose him.
28. STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF LOVE — FOUR TOPS— A hit-making machine for Motown, all went to the same high school in Detroit. There was uplift, but also an exquisite sound of moral desperation in their songs.
29. WALK ON THE WILD SIDE — LOU REED— This was rock becoming self-consciously cool, almost as it always had been.
30. JUST SAY I LOVE HIM — NINA SIMONE— Genre-wise, “Forbidden Fruit” (1961) which contains this tender song, is jazz/blues/folk. The underrated album is a monster.
31. DON’T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYING– GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS— One of the sweetest recordings of all time.
32. WATERLOO SUNSET — THE KINKS— Ray Davies writes and sings; his brother pushes the song into another zone with his guitar; successful bands usually contain family, love, rivalry.
33. HE’S A REBEL — THE BLOSSOMS— Loving the rebel. Credited to the Crystals, a girl-group not available on short notice to record it.
34. SCHOOL’S OUT — ALICE COOPER— What most people think of when they think of rock music.
35. ELENORE –THE TURTLES— Before rock turned dangerous, it grew into what it was simply as an innocent (?) love-drug. “So Happy Together” would work as well.
36. IT’S ALL IN THE GAME — TOMMY EDWARDS— The tune was composed in 1911 by a future Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, Charles Dawes.
37. BILLY JEAN — MICHAEL JACKSON— A song impeccably produced by Quincy Jones, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and Lesley Gore.
38. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER — BUFFY ST. MARIE— This anti-war song, written by the sexy Native American singer, was covered by Donovan. Her version is much better.
39. CALIFORNIA DREAMING — MAMAS AND PAPAS— Folk rock can be a great way to speak.
40. I WANNA BE SEDATED — THE RAMONES— Punk has its anthem.
41. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME? — CULTURE CLUB— Melancholy cool at its best.
42. WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LOVE — JACKIE DESHANNON— A perfect example of sophisticated, urban, socially holy, feel-good, sentimentality.
43. BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER — SIMON & GARFUNKLE— There was an inescapable magic about these two.
44. MAGGIE MAE — ROD STEWART— A raggedy rock classic.
45. HURDY GURDY MAN –DONOVAN — The backing band for this great hippie singer’s 1968 hit (and he had many) was the future Led Zeppelin.
46. HEY YA! — OUTKAST— It was nice to hear this in 2003. This is how it’s done.
47. I’M A BELIEVER — THE MONKEES— The emergence of this ‘audition for TV show’ Beatles-clone band inspired the Beatles to go deeper.
48. TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM — THE TEDDY BEARS— Freud could say Phil Spector used music to get women to worship the father.
49. PINE TOP’S BOOGIE WOOGIE — PINE TOP SMITH— The template for all forms of popular rock exists in this 1928 recording. “And when I say, get it, I want you to shake that thing.”
50. SPIRIT IN THE SKY — NORMAN GREENBAUM— A one hit wonder which really is a wonder.
51. UNDER THE BOARDWALK — THE DRIFTERS— We don’t have to talk about the heroin overdose death of the lead singer the day before the song was to be recorded. Just a great song.
52. SOMEONE LIKE YOU — ADELLE — A woman holding her heart in her hand. Magnificent.
53. EARTH ANGEL — THE PENGUINS — An art song of sentimental naivety.
54. NEW YORK MINING DISASTER 1941 — THE BEE GEES — Nothing bubblegum about this.
55. WHAT’D I SAY — RAY CHARLES — If this song doesn’t make you want to jump out of your skin, you’re not alive.
56. I PUT A SPELL ON YOU — SCREAMIN JAY HAWKINS — What can one say about this?
57. ICKY THUMP –– THE WHITE STRIPES — The art of controlled hysteria with poetry inside.
58. I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU –THE FLAMINGOS — A gorgeous declaration of love, as 1959 covers a 1934 tune.
59. SHE’S NOT THERE — THE ZOMBIES — Moody, soft, melodic, and to the point. Rock that dazzles.
60. WE ARE YOUNG — FUN — The chord progression of the chorus is epic.
61. TIME — PINK FLOYD— A special-effects-saturated, self-examining exercise in English self-pity at the center of the best-selling album of all time.
62. AT THE HOP — DANNY AND THE JUNIORS— The most efficient twelve-bar blues ever. 1957. When templates were perfected.
63. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN — THE SEX PISTOLS — This was a new kind of music: real limits were being pushed. Rock has many, many houses.
64. THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED –DON MCLEAN — The danger here is sentimentality, but the moral, historical, self-reflexive story telling is important.
65. STAYIN’ ALIVE –THE BEE GEES — No one saw this coming: a band of melody becoming a band of beats.
66. HEY JUDE — THE BEATLES — A hopeful A.M. radio era anthem before all the F.M. splintering began.
67. DANCING QUEEN –ABBA — The well-tempered clavier meets disco.
68. MACK THE KNIFE –BOBBY DARIN — Kurt Weil had his own invasion.
69. YOUNG FOLKS — PETER BJORN AND JOHN— Some day ‘catchy’ may be the most important term in the world.
70. SLOW RIDE — FOGHAT — A great example of a rocker’s rock song.
71. AQUALUNG –JETHRO TULL — The ‘Sgt. Peppers/Tommy’ era was extraordinary: Globe Theater rock.
72. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN — THE MOODY BLUES — One of those haunting ‘classical music’ rock tunes which sound good even when its simple chords are strummed on an acoustic guitar.
73. TEMPTATION EYES — THE GRASS ROOTS — Life is too short to be snobby towards The Grass Roots.
74. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED — JIMI HENDRIX — Hendrix was a fanatic about sound, almost in a John Cage sort of way.
75. FREE BIRD — LYNYRD SKYNYRD — The song became a joke, but only because it was good.
76. BORN TO BE WILD — STEPPENWOLF — All the elements of a great rock song and the first to really sound like a machine, among other things.
77. THE END — THE DOORS — Early rock n’ roll was Greece, the Doors, Rome. The rest is imitative.
78. LOUIE LOUIE — THE KINGSMEN — One of those mysteriously great hits which seem like many great songs inside of one.
79. MY SHARONA — THE KNACK — Nearly the parody of a great rock song.
80. SMOKE ON THE WATER — DEEP PURPLE — Something important about this song. No, never mind.
81. ROCK LOBSTER — B-52S — The best example, perhaps, of New Wave’s goofiness.
82. BENNY AND THE JETS — ELTON JOHN — John/Taupin was like one of those old music & lyric writing teams.
83. NORWEGIAN WOOD — THE BEATLES — The best world music riff of all time.
84. AS TEARS GO BY — THE ROLLING STONES — If you can please with a slow tune, it proves you’re not just a dance band.
85. LOVE WILL TEAR US APART –JOY DIVISION — Of Ian Curtis his band mates said, “we didn’t realize he meant it.”
86. I CAN SEE FOR MILES — THE WHO — The Who had remarkable parts which came together in a mix good and bad precisely because they tried so hard to be pop and rock.
87. JOY INSIDE MY TEARS — STEVIE WONDER— A comfort song as only Stevie Wonder can bring, from the pretentiously named 1976 double album, “Songs in the Key of Life.”
88. MAYBELLENE — CHUCK BERRY — Let’s face it: so much of rock music can be annoying. And also iconic.
89. JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH — BLACK EYED PEAS — The new hedonism of rock adds competition: my party in my video has more naked, beautiful people than yours.
90. HEY THERE DELILAH — PLAIN WHITE T’S — The best love song of the 21st century so far?
91. STORMY — DENNIS YOST & THE CLASSICS IV— It’s a little hard to find this song, but for simple, unpretentious songwriting it’s as good as it gets. Epitomizes 70s ear candy.
92. LET’S STAY TOGETHER –AL GREEN — Every woman in the world loves this song.
93. VACATION — THE GO-GOS — This genre, which includes Katrina and the Waves, Cindi Lauper, Blondie, the Bangles, the Vapors, Shocking Blue, the Breeders is quite a lot of fun.
94. CHASING CARS — SNOW PATROL — One of the best things rock can do is create tension which makes passionate insouciance memorable.
95. IRREPLACEABLE — BEYONCE — Not a love song.
96. DREAM BROTHER — JEFF BUCKLEY — A meditative urgency which rock can do so well.
97. CALL ME MAYBE — CARLA RAE JEPSEN — Sort of a love song.
98. WHITE RABBIT — JEFFERSON AIRPLANE — The structure of this song is a rabbit hole. A masterpiece.
99. GOOD NIGHT IRENE– THE WEAVERS — This 1950 hit, a white group playing a black man’s (Leadbelly) music, could make a case for the song that began it all.
100. ODE TO JOY, FOURTH MOVEMENT, NINTH SYMPHONY– BEETHOVEN — Here’s a secret: this is when rock music really began.