Sept 2023. I'm not a big fan of disco, but I was able to put together almost an hour of bangers for my new
. My favorite is Amii Stewart's "Knock on Wood". I'm in awe of how well the sounds are put together. "Born To Be Alive" was also a lot better than I expected.
Sept 2023. In making my prog rock playlist
, I listened to some of the stuff for the first time since high school, and I was surprised by how heavy it was -- except Genesis. And yet it was Genesis I kept listening to, especially the instrumental second half of The Cinema Show
. This is the absolute pinnacle of prog rock.
Top Ten (obscure)
In the first YouTube video of this song, a comment described it as a tragedy. The tones are so intense, someone could think that, but this is the happiest song of all time. This is incomprensible hippie Cthulhu levels of happiness. The first time I heard it, I didn't know my ears could do that. You might think it's bad singing, because what notes even are those? It turns out, they're the exact pitch and timbre to split my head.
On the lyrics, from my Big Blood
They might be about the ecstasy of ego loss in intense social experiences (some things wash away, so you're one thing) or meditation (the choice, every part of this groove is quiet). But I think they're about a well-lived life (greet more friends, bearing the weight of themselves lightly) and its metaphysical context (the bright is all the more beautiful, the spirit risen in sequence). Life begins when a spark of the divine is fixed in space and time (so you're one thing, right in this vicinity) and it ends with a reopening (windows, curtains) and dissolving of the self. The loudest word in the song is "quiet", and at the end the vocals fade under a riff like a cosmic processional. The final words: "And I'm holy."
Pretty & Twisted - Souvenir (1995)
Concrete Blonde's 1990 hit Joey
was written by Johnette Napolitano about Marc Moreland, best known as the guitar player for Wall of Voodoo. Moreland died of liver failure in 2002, probably inspiring Napolitano's 2003 song Suicide Note
In 1995, they collaborated on a one-shot album called Pretty & Twisted
. It's been almost forgotten, but it's quite good, and it contains this incredible song of doomed love, with probably the heaviest vocals ever. It suffers from a hurried fade-out, but that's just what the song is about: "I don't want to see you fade away."
Big Star - Kangaroo (1974)
Like Souvenir, Kangaroo is a love song where the subject of the song participated in the recording. Alex Chilton went into the studio late one night with his girlfriend, Lesa Aldridge, and she recorded while he played a 12-string and sang. The raw recording has a title I like better: Like St Joan
, and this page
has more details. The rhythm is loose, and being on one track, the sounds could not be separated. Chilton gave it to the producer, Jim Dickinson, and said "produce it".
This is one of the best produced songs of all time. Dickinson played every other instrument: mellotron, guitar feedback, bass and drums; and laid them down meticulously, filling the spaces around Chilton's dissipated strumming. There's no rhythm section! Even the drums are played as a lead instrument, and the cowbell in the final verse is a work of art. Chilton does everything he can to make it sound sad, but the lyrics are completely happy, filthy and triumphant. "We looked very fine as we were leaving."
Life Without Buildings - Let's Get Out (2001)
From my albums page: Four Glasgow artists formed a band on a lark, made one album, and went on with their lives. Sue Tompkins' vocals are from another planet, feral and stuttery, seemingly improvised -- and yet, in live performances the songs are basically the same. And if you listen closely, her vocals are in sync with equally complex math rock. I've never heard anything so chaotic and so ordered. This is as brain-stretching as jazz and as blood-pounding as metal.
This song, on the surface, is about a missed phone connection. But it's also an intensely spiritual song about being alive, and I wonder if it inspired the band name, because who needs buildings? "Look around, information, in the leaves." It's about being flesh in the world with its flaws: "I'm a visitor here" and "I still believe in getting low." It's about the tension between regret and the preciousness of all experience: "Look back and say that I didn't!"
Hana Zara is a currently active folk singer who at least three times has knocked a song out of the park. Little Doll (2012), Hooray Hoorah (2017), and this masterpiece about the beauty of small moments. No song on this list does so much with so little.
On almost the same theme, the beauty of the lives of small people, and sadder, this reminds me a lot of Nick Drake's Saturday Sun.
This garage surf romp ticks all the boxes for greatest of all time: it's raw, it's intense, and it's transcendent. "I want to live under water... I want to live in a spaceship... I want to see all my ages with you." From the same country in the same year:
Wireheads - Holiday (2014)
As raw as Beat Happening and as heavy as Hawkwind, this is the best space rock song of all time. With the whale-like interlude, and the theme of reaching toward the light, it reminds me of Pink Floyd's Echoes.
Orphans & Vandals - Argyle Square (2009)
A project of singer-songwriter Al Joshua, this band made one great album of Dickensian chamber rock. The other two major songs are about a suicide and a murder, but this one is about the joy of urban life.
Bone Cellar - Dryrot (1994)
Short and sad, and capped with an epic solo.
Top Ten (popular)
Coldplay - Yellow (2000)
Yellow is the color of the sun. It's the color of warm light. In the context of this song, it's a wild card for feeling that good about something. "Skin and bones" could be anything with substance and form, inner and outer. This is the perfect love song, because whoever or whatever you love, it fits. Churches could sing this about God. For me it's about being alive in this world. "So then I took my turn. Oh what a thing to have done."
Starland Vocal Band - Afternoon Delight (1976)
A lot of people hate this song, because if you view music as a cultural signifier, it represents the sappy culture of the 1970s. But when I use my actual ears, these are the tightest and must luminous harmonies I've ever heard. This would be the first song on my "aliens don't kill us" playlist.
Not a hit, as it was relased during a trucker's strike and the records weren't delivered. But it got a ton of airplay in the UK, and later Tracey Ullman had a popular cover that's basically a tribute, with the peak of the song, "Bayyyby", still MacColl singing.
Crystal Gayle - Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue (1977)
Crystal Gayle is my favorite singer of the 70s. Karen Carpenter has more depth, but the vibrato in this song is like the wings of birds. Because the regular keyboardist was sick, they brought in Hargus "Pig" Robbins, who made up this classic riff on the spot. On the first take, live in studio, they laid down a moonshot recording.
Juice Newton - Angel of the Morning (1981)
This is the kind of singing that hardly ever happens.
Mazzy Star - Fade Into You (1994)
Those were good times and this was the song, dreamy and yearning.
A Flock of Seagulls - Space Age Love Song (1982)
The guitar part is revolutionary, and the lyrics are short and perfect. It's the third line, "for a little while", that takes it to the next level.
Neil Diamond - Soolaimon (1970)
Neil Diamond's two best songs, this and Holly Holy, are both epically spiritual. I would go to church all the time if the music was this good.
My obscure list overflowed and this had the most YouTube views. From the album that invented space rock, with Lemmy on bass, and the vocals are just a teaser for the jam that follows. This is flat-out the best crescendo in rock. Wait for the change at 3:26 and revel in the keyboards.
my slideshow videos
As with Holiday above, the images are mostly from anime boards.
One of the best written songs of the decade, slowed to half speed plus distortion. Images are mostly from the Imaginary Colorscapes subreddit.
Wireheads - Sagan (2014)
I love this solo and I don't even know the name of the guitar player. Images are from two books of sci-fi art.
The Not On Spotify Playlist
Some of these are not on Spotify for good reasons. But somehow this constraint led to the cleanest distillation of my musical taste. Songs not described below are described above.
Silver Summit - Child (2012)
If I had a band I'd try to sound like this.
How has this absolute banger been forgotten?
Spotify has a different version mislabled as this version that kicks its ass.
Wireheads - Holiday (2014)
A teenager's only single, I'm not even sure about the year.
The song I most wish I wrote.
Bone Cellar - Dryrot (1994)
Pretty & Twisted - Souvenir (1995)
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004)
See "Back In Flesh" below.
Big Blood - Water (2011)
My favorite singer works out her voice for twelve minutes.
A Listening Autobiography
The number one song when I was born.
This video blew my mind at age four, and it might be my biggest single influence.
Gordon Lightfoot - Don Quixote (1972)
On family trips my dad would play Gordon Lightfoot on the car stereo, and this was my favorite.
The first song I really loved. At the time I was drawn to the vocal melody of the chorus, and now I admire the crystalline soundscape of echoey low notes and high vocals.
The first band I really got into, and back then I liked their hits, but now I think this was their one great song.
Blue Oyster Cult - Astronomy (live 1978)
At some point in high school I got into Blue Oyster Cult, and this song stood out, and still does, for its gothic poetry and hammering climax.
Their Making Movies album felt like higher quality music than I had previously been listening to, and I got even more into Love Over Gold. This song has an incredible guitar solo at the end.
...but this guitar solo is the best, then and forever. I got obsessed with Rush around 1983 and bought all their albums.
I listened heavily to their Call of the West album, but now this song from Dark Continent is my favorite, and it's oddly similar to Joanna Newsom's "En Gallop". They have the same theme, the conflict between the world of spirit and the money economy. They use the same uncommon meaning of the word "flesh" for how your body chains you to an unpleasant material world. And the riff near the beginning of "En Gallop" is almost the same riff that starts at 2:09.
It's too melodramatic for me now, but I listened so heavily to The Final Cut that I knew all the lyrics. The only Pink Floyd album I still listen to is Meddle.
My perennial second favorite band for 35 years. Now I like their heavier stuff, but this smooth and catchy song from their Zones album was an early favorite. See the Hawkwind section of my albums page.
My hipper friends were already into R.E.M., but I didn't like them until I heard this, their dreamiest song.
In college in Seattle, I heard this song when Beat Happening opened for Billy Bragg and was hooked. It sounds good in a way that nothing sounded good before.
I had been following this band since their first album, and their fifth, Key Lime Pie, blew me away, especially these two overlapping songs. June has the best lyrics and AHFF has the best music.
I discovered Big Star around 1992. The bit starting at 1:25 is like nothing before and not much since. I write more about them on the albums page.
The Muffs - Lucky Guy (1993)
I heard this on college radio, immediately bought their debut album, and became obsessed with the Muffs for years, for their catchy songwriting, tight fuzz guitar, and especially for Kim Shattuck's voice. Her best screaming is on Ethyl My Love, and Upside Down is a great song from their third album.
For years this was my favorite song, but it faded into the background when I discovered Big Blood. Another great Jeff Mangum song is this informal live version of Little Birds.
I'm not a fan of emo, but a friend stayed with me and introduced me to this concise and luminous breakup song. The lyrics are a subtle gutpunch, from the setup, "Don't forget to kiss me if you're really going to leave," to the climax, "Keep your eyes on the road." I interpret it in more detail here.
Orphans & Vandals - Terra Firma (2009)
My girlfriend has highly developed taste in music, which sometimes overlaps with mine. Here's her top 100 from a few years back.
I discovered this band in summer of 2014 and became obsessed for years. Much more on my Big Blood fan page, Ecstasy and Doom.
The song I've spent the most time listening to.
Automatic - Humanoid (2019)
My theme song for COVID. It's about being more alive.
Top Tier Scraps
Songs that aren't on any playlist yet, in order of release date.
unknown - Misirlu (1927?)
The Beatles - Rain (1966)
My favorite Beatles song and Ringo's best drumming. I write more about the Beatles here.
Donovan - Atlantis (1968)
The second half is one of the best things ever.
Flying Burrito Brothers - Sin City (1969)
This must be the saddest song possible, because it also has so much beauty.
Weird song about the conflict between sedentary and nomadic culture.
Melanie Safka - Lay Down (1970)
The best version of Kris Kristofferson's best song.
The Kinks - Strangers (1970)
Syd Barrett - Dark Globe (1970)
Exuma - Baal (1970)
Loudon Wainwright - New Paint (1972)
To my knowledge, the only song with this stunning symmetrical structure: first verse, different verse, chorus, solo, chorus, different verse, first verse.
Their catchiest song, from their brilliant second album, Leave Home.
Their best written song. Dee Dee wrote it and Johnny hated it.
A great lyricist's best lyrics.
Hawkwind - Infinity (1979)
Dire Straits - Skateaway (1980)
The second best classic punk song.
The best classic punk song.
Another gem from that album is Factory, a massive upgrade of Machines by Lothar and the Hand People.
Not a fan of their sound, but these are great lyrics.
Violent Femmes - Never Tell (1984)
Is this prog rock? A multi-part song where every part is great.
Cocteau Twins - Pandora (1984)
Forgotten political song about how people are tricked into believing in the system that feeds on them.
Galaxie 500 - Flowers (1988)
This is what reverb was invented for.
The best place for a guitar solo is at the end of the song.
Beat Happening - TV Girl (1989)
The song I want played at my funeral.
His most underrated song.
Loreena McKennitt - Greensleeves (1991)
Improvised in one take, and its rawness makes it her best song.
Beat Happening - Godsend (1992)
The Garbage and the Flowers - Carousel (1992)
My favorite Velvet Underground song.
Red House Painters - Katy Song (1993)
Sigur Rós - Svefn-g-englar (Sleepwalkers) (1999)
My favorite foreign language song, except for this.
This video features an inspiring drum performance by Erin Doubenmier.
This is like the definition of psychedelic folk, unless it's Secret Garden.
This makes Bohemian Rhapsody sound like children's music.
Red Fang - Wires (2011)
Best video ever.
This sound is like the best parts of Alex Chilton and doom metal. Nothing else this heavy, and this good, is this warm.
Esben and the Witch - No Dog (live 2014)
Play it loud.
I need to listen to more classical music, but so far, this is one of the few things I really like. Another is Satie's Vexations.
Like Beethoven's Great Fugue, this whole album was despised by contemporaries. I don't think either musician was trying to be weird or difficult. They were just trying to be good, and they pushed quality so far that almost nobody got it. This song is practically space rock. I can't even understand it sober, but on cannabis it's the most psychedelic thing I've ever heard.
The Voyager space probes recorded electromagnetic signals from around the solar system, and back on Earth these were converted into sound. Collages of these sounds were released as NASA Voyager Space Sounds, separated into ten 30 minute tracks from different places, and also as Symphonies of the Planets, with different planets blended into five 30 minute CD's. All the prettiest and spookiest stuff, mostly from the rings of Uranus, is on CD 1.
Moondog - Torisa (1995)
I named a character after this.
Yo La Tengo - Spec Bebop (1997)
Is it pronounced Space Bebop? This whole thing is actually riffing on a sound near the end of Miles Davis's song Billy Preston.
Godspeed You Black Emperor - Gathering Storm (2000)
GYBE took the slow buildup to a whole new level. My other favorites include East Hastings and Moya.
Retro Remix Revue - Gerudo Valley (2009)
Great version of the best video game song.
Rachel Flowers - Piano Phase (2011)
Probably the biggest influence on my own piano playing.
Sort of a cover of What Goes On.
The Velvet Underground - What Goes On (1969 live)
I could loop the last six minutes forever.
Incredible crescendo, unusual in that it comes before the vocals.
This is like the new wave Space Is Deep.
Camper Van Beethoven - Lulu Land (1986)
Note: add to lyrics playlist. Written by David Lowery's otherwise unknown roommate, Paul McKinney.
Note: add to covers playlist. This rocks harder than the original, and the vocals are ridiculous.
Note: add to breakup playlist. Check out this interpretation by MisterPuzzles.
Note: add to aliens don't kill us playlist.
The Velvet Underground - Candy Says (1968)
Note: add to best written playlist.
OOIOO - Ina (1999)
Note: add to difficult listening playlist.
This song has never been released or even bootlegged -- you can only hear it by watching the movie Cutter's Way, and only the first verse plays clearly. I bought the dvd just so I could extract it for the video.
The second best song title, after Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun".
The Old 97's - Valentine (1999)
Note: add to breakup playlist.
The live version from The Secret Policeman's Other Ball.
It's easier to unlock genius by trying to be bad than trying to be good, and this masterpiece of badness must be what Song For Baltimore sounds like to other people. Related: Guy Plays A Cat Organ, and a mind-blowing version of Greensleeves on Otamatone.
Appendix: top by letter of the alphabet
- Argyle Square - Orphans and Vandals
- Belong - R.E.M.
- Carousel - The Garbage and the Flowers
- Destin Rain - Big Blood
- En Gallop - Joanna Newsom
- Fade Into You - Mazzy Star
- Good Guys & Bad Guys - Camper Van Beethoven
- Holiday - Wireheads
- I Could Be Happy - Altered Images
- June - Camper Van Beethoven
- Kangaroo - Big Star
- Let's Get Out - Life Without Buildings
- Mirrorball - Nisennenmondai
- New Yorker Cartoon - Jenny and Johnny
- Oh Country - Big Blood
- Picture Postcard, A - The Promise Ring
- Questioningly - Ramones
- Rollercoaster Ride, The - Belle and Sebastian
- Song For Baltimore - Big Blood
- They Don't Know - Kirsty MacColl
- Untitled - R.E.M.
- Venus in Furs - The Velvet Underground
- Watery Down Pt II, A - Big Blood
- Xanadu - Rush
- You Burnt The Toast - Hana Zara
- Zero - Yeah Yeah Yeahs