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100 Greatest Songs of All Time: 100-51

on September 20, 2012, 11:58pm
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90. Pixies – “Hey”

Doolittle, 1989

Through rabid swells of white noise, twanging surf rock, and brash lofi overtones, the Pixies grasped more than a simple aesthetic or a particular sound — the Boston-rooted noise aficionados band paved the way for indie rock to reach consistent spins on radio rotations. Along with peers Nirvana and Pavement, the Pixies ultimately catalyzed the boom of lo-fi alternative rock, soaring to mainstream popularity in the early ‘90s. With Black Francis’ yowl and a familiar rumbling bassline, “Hey” seizes you immediately with the strained confession — “been trying to meet you.” Never has a casual greeting been so evocative, philosophical, and soul-jerking than this track, forever cemented as an anthem against displacement, chained to someone so far away, aching for a reconnection. -Paula Mejia

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89. Kanye West – “Jesus Walks”

The College Dropout, 2004

“Jesus Walks” is a cultural-religious epiphany masquerading as a pop song. It is sociologically, religiously, and aesthetically rich and undeniably infectious. A drill sergeant, militant snares, and a gospel choir made up of former drug addicts are set directly against soldier hoots and auto-tuned choral harmonies. The lyrics are an anxious call to arms — confused faith personified, and contemplating its own complex stasis. Nothing like it had ever seen mainstream success. With “Jesus Walks”, Kanye West studied his and hip-hop-culture-at-large’s loose faith, simultaneously decrying and emphasizing its importance. West pits his own desperate pleas for deliverance against the oft-misguided faith of his and his contemporaries. He comments on the negative connotations of drug-dealing thugs wearing diamond-encrusted crosses. He fears his sinful past, begs for collective forgiveness, and–gasping for air–raps his way to a plea that he’ll come out standing tall, marching along with all the other sinners, as Jesus guides them all toward salvation. Its ubiquitous popularity across all walks of faith says more than I ever could. -Drew Litowitz

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88. Buzzcocks – “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”

Love Bites, 1978

Singer-songwriter Pete Shelley asks an important question here: “Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?” Except, it’s not his. The line traces back to Frank Loesser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Guys & Dolls, which Shelley took inspiration from before penning the song’s lyrics outside a post office. Broadway allusions aside, the Buzzcocks’ genre-defining anthem works off a simple formula that’s been emulated to death by now. They married the speedy, no-looking-back swagger of punk rock with humbling, copacetic issues that were downright personal — they made pop fast ‘n’ heavy ‘n’ deep. What’s so vital about this track is its erratic love-hate relationship that bottles the incomprehensible struggles and interconnected duplicity involved in any fractured coexistence. A deeply psychological line like “And we won’t be together much longer/ Unless we realize that we are the same,” reads like dialogue, and it’s been speaking volumes for 30 something years. -Michael Roffman

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87. PJ Harvey – “Down By the Water”

To Bring You My Love, 1995

Polly Jean Harvey, one of music’s great shape-shifters, combined her fascination with raw electronic instrumentation, American folk (think Leadbelly’s “Salty Dog Blues” refrain), and biblical imagery for the seminal “Down By The Water”. It’s not hard to hear this song in the work of her contemporaries: PJ’s angular whisper-vocals are heard in Sleater-Kinney’s off-kilter howls, and her confessional tone can be heard in Alanis Morissette’s crackling lyrics, and the timbre of her tone had a hand in all of the confessional songwriting that would come in the latter half of the ’90s. The mix of American blues, the supernatural refrain, the filicide (“Little fish, big fish swimming in the water/ Come back here, man, give me my daughter”) on “Down By The Water” represent a vicious and novel rendering of America’s musical past. At 26, Harvey bared her teeth and it was her best look. -Sarah Grant

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86. The Band – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

The Band, 1969

On the one hand, the Southern secession stands as a key touchstone in America’s rich evolution and history. On the other, more the Antebellum South is predominantly viewed for its explicit defense of slavery. Leave it to a group of Canadians to bring a sense of desperate humanity to a story that’s more often than not told in the disdainful abstract. Virgil Caine’s story unravels with a “beautiful sadness” as Robbie Robertson once remarked — a starving, helpless soldier recalling the final days of the Civil War. It’s weighty keys and bittersweet harmonies build and crescendo into one of the saddest, most heartwarming takes on one of the most contemptuous pieces of American History. It’s a de facto anthem of southern rock, even though it came from way up north. These were people, fighting for their livelihood, even if they were–directly or indirectly–defending a brutally offensive practice. “You can’t raise a Caine when he’s in defeat,” Levon Helm cries towards the song’s end. Human fragility is pretty hard to see in the history books. Thanks to Robertson and Helm, you can feel it in your bones. -Drew Litowitz

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85. My Bloody Valentine – “Only Shallow”

Loveless, 1991

Loveless cemented My Bloody Valentine’s status as the seminal shoegazer band as it shattered the boundaries of what was thought possible in guitar manipulation. Its the opener “Only Shallow” redefined the game almost instantly after that brief drum kick. Thanks to its onslaught of reverb, overdubs, and tremolo, it sounds as if it were recorded at the bottom of the English Channel. Over the next two decades, countless acolytes aped this new guitar sound, but never to an effect as simultaneously jarring and narcotic as the interplay between Kevin Shields’ glide riff and Bilinda Butcher’s sweetly indecipherable coos. -Frank Mojica

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84. Sufjan Stevens – “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

Illinois, 2005

It’s not an easy feat to turn one of the most sadistic serial killers of the 20th century into a sympathetic character. Yet Sufjan Stevens manages to do just that on the emotional centerpiece of 2005’s Illinois. Stevens did his homework too, recounting several minor details of John Wayne Gacy’s troubled life, like “when the swing set hit his head” and his genial attitude among friends and neighbors. Behind the most delicate piano and finger-picked guitar, he makes human the inhuman, until finally directing the lyrics inwards during the song’s finally phrases. “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him” he admits. The continuum of morality from sexually assaulting and murdering almost 30 young boys — with their cars, summer jobs, (oh my God) — to Stevens’ own virtuous Christian beliefs is not as long as you would believe. Even in our most pious and righteous behavior, how much distance can we really put between ourselves and a serial killer?  -Bryant Kitching

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83. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “The Message”

The Message, 1982

It’s the summer of 1982. You want to prove hip-hop isn’t just for DJ clubs, that it can make a statement? Do as the Bronx’s Grandmaster Flash did: slow down the tempo, stretch out the groove past the seven-minute mark, and — here’s the kicker — call your song “The Message”. That summer, the music world got the, er — message. Thirty years later, this track is so ubiquitously sampled (Ice Cube and Diddy are among the many to have copped that squiggly synth), so endlessly quoted (“Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge!/ I’m trying not to lose my head!”), and so familiar that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it was. But in 1982, socially conscious hip-hop did not exist. With help from co-writer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher, MC Melle Mel broke down the door with this scathing report from the decaying ghetto. What’s more, before “The Message”, hip-hop wasn’t really about lyrics, or rapping, much at all. By opening up the rhythm track and shifting the focus to Mel’s electrifying verses, the track’s most influential message lies not in the lyrics but in the simple fact that the lyrics carried a message at all. -Zach Schonfeld

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82. Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence”

Violator, 1990

Sometimes it’s best when the writer doesn’t get their way. If Martin Gore got his, we would all be deprived of Depeche Mode’s biggest and best song: “Enjoy the Silence”. Gore originally intended it to be a slow-paced ballad, but thankfully producer Alan Wilder heard potential and convinced the band to go all out. The result is a fantastic track like none other- the gothic but hooky synths mixed with the not-quite-sure-if-sweet-or-not lyrics gave Depeche Mode a bona fide hit. It’s easy to spot the lasting influence of this song today, as over 15 artists have recorded their own cover versions for various releases. -Carson O’Shoney

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81. Wu-Tang Clan – “Protect Ya Neck”

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1992

Middle ground isn’t often a term used to describe The Wu-Tang Clan, but to many fans or soon-to-be fans of hip-hop in 1993, that’s exactly what they were. Landing somewhere between the gangsta repentance of East Coast godfather Kool G. Rap and the relentless West Coast antagonism of N.W.A., Wu-Tang stood out from their peers by being frightening yet funny, intelligent yet arrogant, streetwise yet goofy.

No song embodies their chaos and contradictions like “Protect Ya Neck”, the only tune on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to feature eight of the group’s then nine members. The metaphors range from simple (“I’m hot like sauce”) to observant (“my clan increase like black unemployment”) to morbid (“I’ll be sticking pins in your head like a fucking nurse”), opening the scratched soul of RZA’s Lowell Fulson and Sly Stone samples to a wildly diverse audience.

If a suburban teenager couldn’t relate to the urban schizophrenia of the lyrics, he could laugh at Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s jokes. For those who felt a closer relationship to the collective’s words, maybe the humor and comic book levels of exaggeration were a means of coping with the violence and decay in their real lives. Of course, Wu-Tang probably didn’t think of any of this of this when recording “Protect Ya Neck”, nor its role in further legitimizing East Coast rap in the wake of Dre, Snoop, and Eazy E. To them, I’ll bet the song was what it was: eight guys crammed in a tiny room trying to outdo one another. -Dan CaffreyAdvertisement
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