Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

THE TOP 666 SONGS OF ALLTIME 1-99

Here’s #100-199:

#200-299

#300-399

#400-499

#500-666, and an explanation of what this is all about, other than just plain fun…

99. Douce Gimlet – Destitute

From the frenetic chord-chopping on the intro, into a sad, swinging backbeat, this hauntingly beautiful janglerock song was arguably the New York rockers’ finest moment. During the life of the band, they only released one vinyl single (this wasn’t it), but you can download it for free (click the link above) along with this and the rest of a never-released 2001 studio album at the memorial site for frontman Joe Ben Plummer, tragically killed only three years later.

98. LJ Murphy – Happy Hour

Down in the wicked industries
That are so celebrated now
There’s a forever-smiling face
To which you must scrape and bow
Because you’re just one of many
In a parade of useless warts
With one eye on the secretary
And the other on the quarterly report
 
His best, most scathing song, and he has many. The New York noir rocker’s done this one a million different ways: as straight-up janglerock, as pulsing post-Velvets stomp, as a blues. We liked it best the first way. To date, it’s never been released, but frequently bootlegged especially circa 1999-2000.

97. The Boomtown Rats – Someone’s Looking At You

Walk on the Wild Side-inflected new wave anthem, a nasty summertime police state scenario from The Fine Art of Surfacing, 1979 that only gets more prophetic and apropos as the years go by:

There’s a spy in the sky
There’s noise on the wire
There’s a tap on the line for every paranoid’s desire
.

96. The Clash – Something About England

Like the Beatles before them, the Clash did just about every style you could want: punk, reggae, soca, mento, dub, blues, art-rock, rockabilly, janglerock, hip-hop, powerpop, Motown, noisy instrumental soundscapes, you name it. This is the haunting, towering art-rock anthem that closes side one of Sandinista, producer Bill Price constructing an orchestra out of all those guitars – and an otherworldly laugh at the end to drive its message home.

95. The Church – Kings

Grimly hypnotic, apocalyptic anthem from the legendary psychedelic janglerockers’ visionary Priest=Aura album, 1992.

Software hums and hardware hears
We’re destined, babe, to live these years

94. Elvis Costello – Mouth Almighty

Bitter and unusually candid breakup song set to a sweet pop tune from Punch the Clock, 1983. Honesty gets the guy nothing but the boot, leaving him “without a soul to talk to or a hair out of place.”

93. John Lennon – Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out

“Everybody loves you when you’re six feet under the ground.” From Walls and Bridges, 1973.

92. The Church – Lost My Touch

Frontman Steve Kilbey’s first and only attempt at rap was successful beyond anyone’s dreams. In this case, it’s a snide anti-record label rant. It’s on the vastly underrated 1994 double album Sometime Anywhere.

91. Pulp – I Spy

Every workingman’s fantasy – to screw the rich guy’s piece of ass. Even better – spirit her away to a better place, away from the evil boss, and turn her against him. All this and more set to a deliciously sweeping, epic synth-noir spy theme. From Different Class, 1996. The link above is a live cut from Jools Holland’ s show.

90. The Church – My Little Problem

Junkie equivocation disguised as vengeful anti-record label diatribe, over some of the most gorgeous layers of jangly Rickenbacker guitar ever recorded. “Remember this day, remember this room, remember this scene and I’ll remember you!” From Sometime Anywhere, 1994.

89. Rachelle Garniez – After the Afterparty

Elegantly vengeful kiss-off balad set to one of the multistylistic steampunk goddess’ catchiest, most gracefully anthemic piano melodies. From her classic 2007 cd Melusine Years, our pick for best album that year.

88. The Church – Tristesse

I was standing in an orchard
That grew the strangest fruit
It wasn’t Mother Nature
That made those trees take root
Your children cannot hear you

They only want your loot
You hold on to their essence
Like a parachute
They never noticed you were in distress…

Classic, apocalyptic janglerock anthem from the Heyday album, 1986.

87. Radio Birdman – I-94

Regrettably common American experience set to a savage, chromatic garage-punk tune –  kid discovers that college has ruined his old friend:

I bought you a case of Stroh’s
You never drank ‘em down
You keep drinking Rolling Rock
You know I can’t hang round

This was 1979. Stroh’s wasn’t owned by Coors then, or available much further east of Michigan, and this being before the age of microbrews, beer lovers couldn’t get enough of it. Rolling Rock, on the other hand, had already become a staple of fratboy bars from Massachusetts down to the Carolinas. The song is on the classic Radios Appear album – as you might have noticed by now, most of the songs on that record are on this list.

86. The Sex Pistols – Holidays in the Sun

The original Holiday in Cambodia – “I never asked for sunshine, and I got World War III!”

85. The Walkabouts – Night Drive

Bloodcurdling organ-fueled Pacific Northwest noir anthem from the classic 1994 Setting the Woods on Fire album by the legendary Seattle band that took their show on the road, discovered that they liked Europe a lot more, that Europe liked them a lot more too, so they made their home there. Frontman Chris Eckman and his longtime collaborator Carla Torgerson (check out those amazing creepy vocals) continue as the similarly dark duo Chris and Carla.

84. The Church – The Disillusionist

Centerpiece of the iconic 1992 Priest = Aura album, it’s a macabrely metaphorical examination of the charismatic appeal of fascism, surreal Kinks-style vaudeville rock through the misty, reverb-spotted prism of dreampop. “They say that he’s famous from the waist down, but the top half of his body is a corpse.”

83. The Slickee Boys – Your Autumn Eyes

A one-of-a-kind artsy masterpiece by the legendary DC-area psychedelic punks, a towering, haunting 6/8 anthem that rolls out with graceful anguish, aloft on a bed of beautifully watery guitars. From the Fashionably Late album, 1989.

82. Genesis – Heathaze

Don’t let the presence of Phil Collins scare you off – this beautiful Tony Banks keyboard ballad vividly yet offhandedly captures the reluctant triumph of realizing how completely alone you are in the world – and also how surrounded by idiots you are. From the Duke album, 1977.

81. Robin Lane & the Chartbusters – Solid Rock

Best remembered for their surprise 1979 janglerock hit When Things Go Wrong, this Boston band were several years ahead of their time. With a lush, often intense two-guitar attack and Lane’s throaty vocals, they put out four good-to-excellent albums and then regrouped for another in 2005. This towering, crescendoing, lusciously produced anthem is the centerpiece of their best one, 1981′s Imitation Life. Lane would go on to found A Woman’s Voice, a nonprofit providing music therapy for women with post-traumatic stress disorder.

80. The Dead Boys – Son of Sam

Listen closely – the hook is a total ripoff of Crazy on You by Heart. But no matter – the taunting, macabre punk anthem is as eerie today as when David Berkowitz was stalking yuppie puppies on lovers lanes in the outer boroughs of New York back in 1977. The album version on We Have Come for Your Children is stiff and misproduced; the various live versions (notably on Night of the Living Dead Boys) are the real deal.

79. The Slickee Boys – Nagasaki Neuter

Meant to evoke the terrible seconds of A-bomb heat that turned “gorgeous babes into Etch-a-Sketch people,” this searing garage-punk song pretty much does the job, guitarists Marshall Keith and Kim Kane matching each others’ ferocious riffs. From the legendary DC-area psychedelic punks’ classic 1983 album Cybernetic Dreams of Pi; the link in the title above is a random torrent.

78. Gruppo Sportivo – I Would Dance

Uncharacteristically dark jangly anthem from the mostly acoustic double live 1998 Second Life cd by these legendary Dutch rock satirists. “If life is a game, why am I so bloody serious? Why don’t I hang my own paintings on my empty walls?”

77. The Doors – Hyacinth House

Conventional wisdom is that this gorgeous, midtempo guitar-and-organ pop song is about a favorite LA spot of Jim Morrison’s. It could just as easily be about a tomb. Anybody ever been to Pere Lachaise? “And I’ll say it again, I need a brand new friend.” Didn’t he ever. From LA Woman, 1972.

76. The Clash – Spanish Bombs

Their best song, equal parts poignant janglerock requiem and cautionary tale about the deadly effects of fascism. From London Calling.

75. The Dead Boys – I Won’t Look Back

Gleeful punk rock revenge doesn’t get any better than this:

I remember all their social games
Gossip spreading talk among the lames
Friday night’s lonely romance, empty heads with no reactions now

From We Have Come for Your Children, 1978; the version on Night of the Living Dead Boys is even more satisfying.

74. Joy Division – Transmission

Manic depression half-masked beneath the layers of mellotron and Peter Hook’s hypnotic bass. Originally the band’s first big UK hit, the studio version (the best one) is on the Substance anthology that came out in the late 80s.

73. True West – Shot You Down

Best song on the iconic “paisley underground” psychedelic rockers’ best album, Drifters, 1983, a pounding post-Television style revenge anthem. “And it feels so good to be alive.”

72. Joy Division – Isolation

The goth song that launched a million others, none of which come close to the haunting anguish of this one. Peter Hook’s bassline is classic. From Closer, 1980.

71. The Alan Parsons Project – Don’t Answer Me

With the boomy kettle drum lurking in the background, Alan Parsons’ wall-of-sound production beats Phil Spector at his own game. It’s a great song, too, an anguished, artsy, backbeat-driven alienation anthem from the 1984 Ammonia Avenue album. To stream it clink the link above and scroll down to the video.

70. Joy Division – Shadowplay

In the shadowplay acting out your own death, knowing no more
See assassins all grouped in four lines dancing on the floor

In 1979 Britain, the spectre of fascism was never faraway, and as personal as Ian Curtis’ lyrics are, he never lost sight of the outside world. The price of liberty is eternal what? This one’s on Unknown Pleasures. To stream the song, click the link and scroll down to a cool early video.

69. Alpha Blondy – Wish You Were Here

The Ivory Coast roots reggae superstar has written such incendiary songs as Les Salauds, Les Chiens, Les Imbeciles, Sales Racistes, and Ne Tirez Pas Sur l’Ambulance. But his best one might be his wrenching cover of the Pink Floyd classic, the refrain of “we’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year” returning again and again to maximum effect. From the Jah Victory album, 2008.

68. Phil Ochs – My Life

The blitheness of the song’s ragtime-pop melody contrasts savagely with Ochs’ lyric about being harrassed by the Nixon gestapo: “Take your tap from my phone, and leave my life alone.” That’s Lincoln Mayorga on piano – his 2010 album of Gershwin would raise the bar for anyone wishing to play An American in Paris. From Rehearsals for Retirement, 1968.

67. The Church – Grind

Lushly jangly, clanging art-rock masterpiece, the concluding cut on the underrated 1990 Gold Afternoon Fix album, an exhausted, embittered view of a band disintegrating. Fortunately, twenty years later, the psychedelic Australian crew remain as vital as ever. The link above is a live cut from 1992.

66. Bruce Springsteen – Backstreets

Timeless epic from the viewpoint of a down-and-out kid trying to stay sane, and to maybe even find some fun, in the inescapable slums. It could be Asbury Park, it could be Port-au-Prince, it could be St.-Denis, either way you’re eventually “stranded in the park, and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets.” And it’s the great shining moment of pianist Roy Bittan’s career. From Born to Run.

65. The Boomtown Rats – Close As You’ll Ever Be

As punk as they ever got, a savage, macabre blast of machine-shop guitar fury from the band’s first album, 1977.

64. Joy Division – No Love Lost

The transition from bouncy synth-and-bass dance tune to scorching punk rock literally takes your breath away. And it’s got one of Ian Curtis’ best vocals. It’s on one of the Substance anthologies, and if you can find a live version (the band rarely played it), it’s likely to be amazing. Turn it on.

63. The Rolling Stones – Dead Flowers

The only serious one of their many faux-country ballads is the best. Ostensibly it marked the dissolution of the Jagger-Faithfull romance, but it’s a lot more vicious than it seemingly would need to be. Never mind the zillions of covers out there, they can’t compare with the original. From Sticky Fingers, 1972.

62. Joy Division – Ice Age

Punk rock meets noise-rock with Bernard Albrecht (that was his name then) scorching his way down the fretboard on this fast, frenetic smash released on Still in 1981.

61. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Everybody involved swears that Ian Curtis took a Sinatra album or two home and listened to them all night before recording this – and playing guitar on it (it’s in the video!). And as sad as this is, what a fun song to play – check out the covers by all-female accordion ensemble the Main Squeeze Orchestra – or Dresden Dolls spinoff Evelyn Evelyn.

60. The Jam – Private Hell

The vapidness of idle upperclass life illuminated with surprisingly sympathetic savagery in this punk rock classic from Setting Sons, 1979. Bruce Foxton’s incendiary, crackling bassline is one of the best ever.

59. The Electric Light Orchestra – Big Wheels

Towering, watery alienation anthem and centerpiece of the sidelong “Concerto for a Rainy Day” on Out of the Blue, 1977, electric piano on the intro and outro absolutely dripping with angst.

58. The Jam – That’s Entertainment

Paul Weller famously said that he wrote this in twenty minutes after coming home from the pub, pissed and pissed off. Too bad he hasn’t done that in the last twenty-five years. The best version of this one is the one with the organ and the horns on the 1983 Dig the New Breed album (although the studio recording with the acoustic guitar and all the backward masking isn’t bad either). The link above is a live acoustic British tv appearance from that era.

57. The Sex Pistols – Schools Are Prisons

Although credited to the Pistols (on the Pirates of Destiny outtakes compilation), this isn’t them – and since it’s such a good song, why the real culprits never identified themselves remains a mystery. At this point in time, they’d be forgiven. Classic punk rock circa 1988, a song that needed to be written.

56. Elvis Costello – Oliver’s Army

Arguably the smartest, and most indelibly catchy, anti-imperialism song ever written: “And I would rather be anywhere else than here today.” Rumor has it that Steve Nieve wrote the melody. Best song on Armed Forces, 1979.

55. The Electric Light Orchestra – Mission

Another one of Jeff Lynne’s brilliant, towering apocalypse anthems, this one from A New World Record, 1976, an alien guard “watching all the days roll by” on a barren, desolate, depopulated earth.

54. Joy Division – Heart & Soul

By the time this hypnotic, swirling dirge opens side two of Closer, it’s obvious how badly everything is going to end: without a doubt, it’s the suicide album to end all suicide albums. “Heart and soul, one will burn.”

53. Leonard Cohen – The Future

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
Stuff it up the hole in your culture…
I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder

The legendary prophet of doom’s most specific, and most accurate predictions, set to a swoopy goth-disco backing track. Title cut from the 1992 cd.

52. The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays

Widely banned at the time it was released, this gorgeous piano-and-orchestra art-rock anthem memorialized the first schoolyard sniper attack (and unwittingly foretold many more to come – this was back in the days before the antidepressants that Kip Kinkel, Dylan Klebold and all of the other school shooters were taking when they pulled the trigger). From The Fine Art of Surfacing, 1979; there’s also a killer live version with just Bob Geldof backed by Johnnie Fingers on piano on the first Secret Policeman’s Ball soundtrack from two years later. Who would have thought that Geldof originally wrote this as a reggae song.

51. David Bowie – Five Years

The best track on Ziggy Stardust is a little uptight compared to the lush, almost symphonic grandeur of the even more angst-ridden version on Bowie’s live 1979 album.

50. The Room – New Dreams for Old

Optimism in the midst of despair in this gorgeous, lyrically dazzling 1984 UK psychedelic pop hit from the band’s In Evil Hour album. The Tom Verlaine-produced single is the best version.

49. The Boomtown Rats – I Can Make It If You Can

Fiery, towering, anguished anthem that serves as the centerpiece of the band’s classic 1977 debut album, Garry Roberts and Gerry Cott trading searing riffage:

Don’t talk about the future, please don’t talk about the past
Let’s forget about the present, it’s hard enough to laugh

The link in the title above is a ferocious high quality live take.

48. The Go Go’s – Forget That Day

Ostensibly this uncharacteristically epic, ornate art-pop masterpiece of a breakup ballad also broke up the band: guitarist Jane Weidlin, who wrote it, wanted to sing and Belinda Carlisle wouldn’t let her. From their gorgeous first-time-around swan song, Talk Show, 1984. Here’s a bootleg from a reputedly legendary show, Portland, Maine, summer 1984; here’s the band twenty-five years later, more propulsive and more poignant.

47. The Walkabouts – Firetrap

Pacific Northwest gothic at its finest: the narrator returns to avenge a dead family member. Centerpiece of the band’s best album, 1994′s Setting the Woods on Fire, one of the ten best albums ever made: “Not only you can burn!” The link in the title above is a random torrent.

46. The Electric Light Orchestra – Loser Gone Wild

This song is about losing it, completely and badly, and then equivocating about it. “I don’t care if violins don’t play/I wouldn’t listen to them anyway,” Jeff Lynne insists over the cheesiest faux jazz ever played on a synthesizer. Sure, Jeff, anything you say. Clinical depression has never been so vividly portrayed. From Secret Messages, 1983.

45. Radio Birdman – Death by the Gun

The original 1978 studio version of this punked-out country murder ballad with one of the greatest guitar solos of all time doesn’t appear to exist in digital form anywhere – although there are live versions, most of them very dodgy, floating around the web (like this one by RB guitarist Chris Masuak’s band the Hitmen). The Horehounds also had the good sense to cover it.

44. The Electric Light Orchestra – Laredo Tornado

Raw, wounded, careening anthem mourning the loss of a better time and place. The tradeoff from Jeff Lynne’s lead guitar over to Mik Kaminsky’s electric violin midway through the solo out is one of the high points in rock history. From the Eldorado album, 1975.

43. The Church – Already Yesterday

As his bass carries the melody soaring over Peter Koppes’ airy guitar, frontman Steve Kilbey casually narrates a chilling post-apocalyptic scenario. Live, he’s been known to change the lyrics: “Please don’t feel those locks and chains, please don’t listen to the lizard part of your brain…” From the Heyday album, 1986.

42. Elvis Costello – Withered & Died

This Richard Thompson song was originally sung by Linda Thompson on I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight in 1974. Solo acoustic, Costello is even more haunting: his version is the “secret” bonus track on the 1990s Rhino reissue of the underrated 1985 Goodbye Cruel World album.

41. Pink Floyd – Your Possible Pasts

As poignant a requiem for lost time, and various tortured pasts, as has ever been written, Michael Kamen’s piano stark and plaintive against all the railroad siding sound effects:

They flutter behind you, the banners and flags
Of your possible pasts lie in tatters and rags

From the brilliant and vastly underrated Final Cut album, 1983.

40. Albert King – As the Years Go Passing By

The studio version of Don Robey’s dark, stately, minor-key 6/8 blues ballad on the 1965 Born Under a Bad Sign album is ok, but it’s the live versions that really haunt. The best we know of is a ten-minute version on a 1979 double live album on the French Tomato label. The link above is a nice extended version from that same period.

39. Elvis Costello – Big Tears

One of the greatest intros of all time: Costello kicks it off with a bass note and then a big majestic broken chord, Bruce Thomas’ bass soars in, way up the scale and then Steve Nieve’s Farfisa swoops down and anchors it – and then the Clash’s Mick Jones guests with a surprisingly apt, understatedly sympathetic guitar solo. One of Costello’s best lyrics, too, a shot of adrenaline for any embattled nonconformist. Originally released on Taking Liberties, 1981.

38. Procol Harum – Conquistador

Sympathy for the devil: dead imperialist lies half-buried at the water’s edge, rusty scabbard in what’s left of his hand. And at this point, all he can command is pity: “You came to conquer, but only died.” The best version is the 1972 hit single from the Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra lp, string section kicking off the song’s majestic flamencoesque hook, David Ball’s guitar solo one of the greatest moments of noise-rock ever recorded. The link above includes some audience noise – start it and then mute it until about :20.

37. Pulp – Common People

The most savage, most spot-on anti-trendoid anthem ever written, a big wet loogie for every smug, cluelessly obtuse trust fund kid from here to Bushwick:

When you’re lying in bed watching roaches climb the walls
If you called your daddy he could stop it all
You’ll never live like common people…

From Different Class, 1996.

36. Bob Dylan – Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts

Symbolically charged nine-minute epic, a murder mystery that ends on a bitter, cynical note like much of the rest of Blood on the Tracks. Reputedly Dylan played it live once and then gave up on it; New York rockers Mary Lee’s Corvette (whose live version of the complete Blood on the Tracks album is better than the original) managed to pull this one off several times: who knows when they might again. The link in the title above is a random torrent.

35. The Room – Shirt of Fire

The title is a TS Eliot quote from the Four Quartets. And the mid-80s Liverpool psychedelic rockers play the song as if they’re wearing one in the video above (click the link and then scroll down). Lead guitarist Paul Cavanaugh’s insanely fast, crescendoing solo on the Tom Verlaine-produced studio version is considerably more focused, one of the best ever, frontman/songwriter Dave Jackson at the absolute top of his game as angst-ridden, literate new wave crooner.

34. The Rolling Stones – Wild Horses

As we get closer to #1, you’ve probably noticed that some of the songs are getting kind of obvious. But they’re obvious because they’re so good. This might be the best love song ever written – and one of the saddest ones, since all the good ones are sad anyway. It’s the little touches, like Jim Dickinson’s plaintive piano fills, that make it that way. From Sticky Fingers, 1972.

33. The Church – Bel Air

Eerie, surreal vacation scenario set to what might be the band’s most unaffectedly beautiful melody: Jimmy Buffett through a Weegee lens. From the band’s classic 1981 debut album Of Skins and Heart (simply titled The Church here in the US).

32. Jim Croce – Operator

The third-highest-ranked US pop chart hit on this list will give you chills – the narrator has lost it so badly, and is so desperate for some kind of human contact that he doesn’t want the 411 operator to go after he’s clearly exhausted her patience. And what an amazing bassline. One can only wonder if Croce might have written another one like this, had he lived.

31. Bob Dylan – Desolation Row

Righteously wrathful, snidely sarcastic, lyrically luscious anti-trendoid rant that does double duty as a passionate defense of true art battling with the other kind. So many killer phrases in this that it’s impossible to list them all. From Highway 61 Revisited, 1967; the link above is a random torrent.

30. The Church – For a Moment We’re Strangers

Opening with a blast of guitar fury uncommonly intense even for this band, it’s the most disquietingly accurate portrait of a one-night stand ever set to music:

In the empty place the souls strip bare
Of skins and heart
And they come apart
In your icy hands
I forget my role
As I stare into your soul

A title track of sorts from the iconic Australian art-rock band’s 1981 debut album.

29. Bob Dylan – Tangled Up in Blue

Requiem for the hopes and dreams of the 60s disguised as a requiem for a relationship? Or vice versa?

All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
I don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they do with their lives

From Blood on the Tracks, 1974; the link above is a random torrent.

28. The Pretenders – Back on the Chain Gang

One of the greatest janglerock songs, a requiem for not one but two of Chrissie Hynde’s bandmates, guitarist James Honeyman Scott and bassist Pete Farndon:

Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part
In the wretched life of a lonely heart

A hit single at the end of 1982, it’s on the Learning to Crawl album.

27. The Rolling Stones – Sister Morphine

As gruesomely as Jagger recounts this deathbed scenario, it’s Keith Richards’ and Ry Cooder’s guitars that make it so macabre. “And in the morning you can wash all those clean white sheets stained red.” From Sticky Fingers, 1972.

26. Joy Division – New Dawn Fades

Prelude to a suicide note: “A loaded gun won’t set you free, so they say.” Bernard Albrecht’s jangly, watery guitar carries the understatedly plaintive intensity. From Unknown Pleasures, 1979.

25. Joy Division – Passover

“This is the crisis I knew had to come,” Ian Curtis intones. Bernard Albrecht’s mournful, minimalist guitar is equally searing and poignant. From Closer, 1981.

24. Joy Division – Day of the Lords

Three JD cuts in a row – and there are more to come. This is just about their loudest, most scorching anthem. “Where will it end, WHERE WILL IT END????” From Unknown Pleasures, 1979.

23. The Church – Disenchanted

Janglerock guitar doesn’t get any more exquisitely beautiful than this, Marty Willson-Piper’s twelve-string Rickenbacker meshing with Peter Koppes’ Strat. And Steve Kilbey’s excoriating, cynical lyric about the pitfalls of celebrity is one of his best. From the Heyday album, 1986.

22. The Boomtown Rats – When the Night Comes

Savage, sarcastic and more than somewhat desperate afterwork scenario. How little the corporate world has changed since 1979:

You get hooked so quick to everything, even your chains
You’re crouching in your corner til they open up your cage

Garry Roberts’ amphetamine, flamenco-spiked guitar solo is one of the most exhilarating moments in the history of rock. From the Fine Art of Surfacing.

21. Jello Biafra & DOA – Full Metal Jackoff

Dating from the Bush I presidency but as accurate now as it was almost twenty years ago, Biafra caustically and painstakingly documents the failure of the war on drugs – and its use by the right wing to keep the working classes divided and conquered – over practically twenty minutes of reverb-drenched sonic sludge by the Canadian punk rockers. One of the most important political documents of our time, and a great song too. From The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy, 1992. For an even more bleakly funny take on the situation, see #121 on this list, the Geto Boys’ City Under Siege.

20. Flash & the Pan – Lights in the Night

One of the most haunting songs ever recorded, it takes the theme Bowie introduced on Life on Mars to the next level. The narrator of this creepily atmospheric noir synthesizer dirge is so alienated that he’s willing to take a chance with the aliens if they’d ever bring their lights down out of the sky. Title track from the 1980 album by the studio-only Australian group formed by Harry Vanda and George Young after the Easybeats broke up.

19. The Dead Boys – Not Anymore

Zillions of songs have been written about the plight of the homeless. Guitarist Jimmy Zero’s scorching, titanic two-guitar anthem tells it like it is. “Afraid of sleeping and I’m freezing to death, I gotta keep me awake.” Cheetah Chrome’s watery chorus-box solo is his finest moment in the band. From Young, Loud and Snotty, 1977. There are also numerous live versions, like the scorching one from CBGB that year in the link above, kicking around: do some exploring.

18. The Electric Light Orchestra – Kuiama

This majestic, practically twelve-minute antiwar epic is the centerpiece of the vastly underrated 1972 ELO II album. The solo on the bridge, Jeff Lynne’s poignant slide guitar giving way to Mik Kaminsky’s wildly swooping violin, might be the most blissfully exhilarating moment ever recorded by a rock band.

17. The Psychedelic Furs – Book of Days

Innumerable bands have imitated Joy Division over the years; the Furs’ 1989 album Book of Days is the only one that ever succeeded in capturing that band’s towering anguish. This brooding dirge is the album’s centerpiece, a requiem for lost time and lost hopes. If you’re going to listen to it, click the link above and don’t try to multitask – you’ll miss the full impact.

16. Joy Division – The Eternal

Complete emotional depletion has never been so accurately depicted as in this Mellotron dirge from Closer, 1981. “With children my time is so wastefully spent.” Which raises the obvious question – if Ian Curtis’ doctor hadn’t prescribed him barbituates for his epilepsy, would he still be alive?

15. Phil Ochs – Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore

While the Lenny of the title was inspired by the great Lenny Bruce, this isn’t exactly a funny song. As Lincoln Mayorga’s organ weaves around, Ochs paints an unforgettably seedy tableau where a “haggard ex-lover of a longtime loser” searches for him in vain. At the end, in an evocation of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention riots, “the shoulders charge, the boards of the barricade are splintered,” but it’s too late. From Rehearsals for Retirement, 1969.

14. Elvis Costello – New Amsterdam

The personal as political: a savage dismissal of shallow American consumerism, and one of the most caustic kiss-off songs ever written: “Everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten.” And a triumph for Costello, who played all the instruments himself. From Get Happy, 1980.

13. Phil Ochs – Another Age

“We were born in a revolution, and we died in a wasted war…if that was an election, I’m a Viet Cong,” Ochs rails in the hardest-rocking song he ever recorded. Bob Rafkin’s ferocious, melodic bassline is the centerpiece of the studio version on the death-obsessed Rehearsals for Retirement, 1969; the version on Live in Vancouver, released posthumously in the 90s, has a gentler janglerock feel.

12. Joy Division – 24 Hours

As good a candidate as any for best bassline ever – Peter Hook’s octaves and chords perfectly channel the song’s breathless, manic angst. From Closer, 1981.

11. Elvis Costello – Brilliant Mistake

Ironically, this lyrical masterpiece – a continuation of the scathing anti-conformist kiss-off theme he first honed to perfection on New Amsterdam – is the only remotely interesting track on the otherwise forgettable King of America album from 1986. The link above is a live take from Milwaukee’s Summerfest some 23 years later.

10. Elvis Costello – Man out of Time

Sympathy for the devil – one of Costello’s greatest achievements is how he can both demonize and humanize at the same time, as he does with the utterly evil character in question here. The best version we know of is on the long out-of-print three-cd live box set Costello & Nieve, from 1996; here’s one from before the original album version (on Imperial Bedroom) came out, 1982.

9. Randi Russo – Prey

A bitter, majestically epic anthem for any nonconformist surrounded by a hostile mob, literally or figuratively, the twin guitars of Russo and lead player Lenny Molotov swirling with eerie, Middle Eastern-inflected overtones. The version on the 2005 Live at Sin-E album is a tad fast; there are also bootlegs kicking around the web, look around.

8. Richard & Linda Thompson – The Wall of Death

A bitter yet unapologetic, metaphorically charged tribute to living with intensity and passion no matter what the consequences. Which as the title indicates could be severe, to the extreme. But would you want it any other way? The link above is a characteristically amped-up version done by Richard without Linda (youtube didn’t exist when those two were playing). It’s the closing track on the awesome Shoot out the Lights album from 1982 – torrents for that one are everywhere.

7. The Boomtown Rats – Rat Trap

In his autobiography, Bob Geldof explained that this song was inspired by his brief tenure working at a slaughterhouse, particularly the line “pus and grime ooze from its scab-crusted sores.” An apt metaphor for the dead-end blue-collar life he chronicles here, a Springsteenish epic filtered through the cruel prism of punk rock. With a killer bassline by Pete Briquette, and the most exhilarating outro in the history of rock, Garry Roberts’ and Gerry Cott’s guitars melting into a firestorm, Johnnie Fingers sharpshooting through it on the electric piano. It’s on the classic Tonic for the Troops album from 1978.

6. The Dead Kennedys – A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch

Hang in there: the DKs open the song by running a whole verse without lyrics, East Bay Ray’s macabre surf guitar sounding like a guitar army. The song is on Frankenchrist, the greatest punk band’s greatest album. It’s a random series of observations that any relatively perceptive kid could have made in 1985: the idiocy of Elvis worship; how multinational corporations take their poison to the third world when the FDA bans it here (they don’t anymore); the sick and twisted world of CIA black operations. And how does the average person respond: “Turn on, tune in, drop out? Drop kick, turn in, tune out.” Bassist Klaus Flouride practically breaks his low string in disgust at the end.

5. Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams – All the King’s Horses

“Until one among you burns to tell this tale, I’ll hear a lie in every word you utter,” the New York Americana chanteuse sings stoically and hauntingly over a lush, jangly bed of guitars in this nine-minute epic. Sean Dolan’s lyric casts a medieval travelogue as Orwellian nightmare:

Way down here the high sheriff
Keeps a list of names
And next to every one
Is the reason for their shame
Some were unwed mothers
Some were partners in crime
Some sold transport papers from paradise
Others just stayed high all the time
Some people get more than they need
Some people ain’t got enough
Some call it good fortune, some call it greed
Some call the sheriff when things get rough
Goddamn the hangman…

The procession marches on, through the shadows, as the atrocities mount. And how little has changed over the centuries:

Thirty pieces of silver is a paltry sum
For those who live inside the gates
Who still make their fortunes in slaves and rum
Precious metals and interest rates

And it ends in a refugee camp:

When the battles are over the father weeps
For children and mothers all alone
Do you have enough hours left to bury your dead
Or enough days in which to atone?

It’s the centerpiece of an unreleased ep. There are also a few live bootlegs kicking around – it was a showstopper during the days of the 99 Cent Dreams, the late Dave Campbell steering the juggernaut with characteristic agility behind the drum kit.

4. Bob Dylan – Idiot Wind

Probably the most vengeful kiss-off song ever written. And as a good a candidate as any for best rock lyric ever:

You hurt the ones that I love best, and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb
Blowing through the curtains in your room
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

That’s Dylan on the organ by the way. It’s on Blood on the Tracks, from 1975. The link above is a random torrent.

3. Mary Lee’s Corvette – Idiot Wind

Great lyrics don’t always get the benefit of a great voice to deliver them (and vice versa). Happily, Mary Lee Kortes and her band Mary Lee’s Corvette made a live recording of the entire Blood on the Tracks album at New York’s Arlene Grocery in 2002 – and one of us was there. The show was transcendent. This is the high point: when Kortes, always at her best onstage, sings “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered, nor the pain I rise above,” she’ll give you chills. It’s even better than the original.

2. The Electric Light Orchestra – Eldorado

A titanic, majestic anthem for alienated individualists, Jeff Lynne’s greatest moment as a songwriter, and also as a singer. Title track from the classic 1975 album.

1. The Church – Destination

Why did we pick this one? Because it so tersely and succinctly captures our era. Great art is timeless: this macabre rock epic hasn’t aged a bit since 1988, when released as the first track on the classic, platinum Starfish album. It starts suspensefully, Peter Koppes’ and Marty Willson-Piper’s guitars playing a fifth interval, neither major nor minor. Then Marty bends a string, an eerie minor third and the procession is underway:

Our instruments have no way of measuring this feeling
Can never cut below the floor, or penetrate the ceiling

All we can ever know is what we perceive: trapped within our senses, there is no exit:

In the space between our houses, some bones have been discovered
The whole procession lurches on, as if we have recovered…

All is not well: an understatement. Yet we pay no mind:

Draconian winter unforetold
One solar day, suddenly you’re old
That little envelope just leaves me cold
Makes destination start to unfold

The “Draconian winter” is the one line that dates this song: global warming hadn’t yet rendered that phrase obsolete. Yet it still works on a metaphorical leve. “One solar day,” a phrase from Indian mysticism, meaning an eon. And the drugs don’t work anymore – in fact they might kill you instead.

Our documents are useless, all forged beyond believing
Page 47 isn’t signed, I need it by this evening
In the space between our cities, a storm is slowly forming
Something eating up our days, I feel it every morning…

A reference to a recording contract? Probably – Steve Kilbey’s written some of the best diatribes about the music business. But maybe also a passport, a visa? Which means nothing to the corrupt officials or the Halliburton subcontractors at the border.

It’s not a religion, it’s just a technique
It’s just a way of making you speak
And distance and speed have left us too weak
And Destination looks kind of bleak

That’s a reference to the band themselves. But it could also be a lot of other things – including torture.

Our elements are burnt out, our beasts have been mistreated
I tell you it’s the only way we’ll get this road completed
In the space between our bodies, the air has grown small fingers
Just one caress, you’re powerless…Destination…

And we’re left incapable of changing course. Of course, we aren’t really: apocalyptic art is cautionary, it reminds us that this will happen if we don’t heed the warning. It’s in our hands now.

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5 Comments »

  1. The Church is such an underrated band. If you get the chance to catch them live do not miss the opportunity. It’s the cheapest and the best two and one-half vacation you’ll ever have. They somehow manage to keep recreating the original magic. It’s as if they can keep returning to a secret
    place other bands lose after that vampire called success fills their pockets and empties their souls.

    Comment by Beltway Greg | April 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. I’ve been to over a thousand rock shows and the Church were the best I’ve ever seen. No disrespect to all the other great bands and lyricists out there, but I don’t think that over the last thirty years there’s anyone else who comes close to matching them, in terms of emotional resonance, great playing and great tunes.

    Comment by the boss here | April 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. The Electric Light Orchestra rock. Eldorado is the anthem of anthems. Who needs a guitar solo with all those fiddles sawing?

    Comment by Beltway Express | July 21, 2010 | Reply

  4. Seems like there’s some telepathy going on here. Check back in a few days and you might see something familiar…

    Comment by the boss here | July 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. Never thought anyone else dug The Church as much as I did..until now! They are awesome. Under the Milky Way with a pair of Beats Studio headphones on might be one of the best things in life ever!
    Couple of other really awesome Auzzie bands like The Chills and Midnight Oil would make this list perfect!

    Comment by Patrick | January 1, 2014 | Reply


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