The lower half of this page is for my own reference, and I've been converting the top into playlists rather than a ranking. Scroll to the bottom for my top 20 in chronological order. Also check out my Favorite Albums plus Hawkwind, my girlfriend's top 100, and my Big Blood page, Ecstasy and Doom.
The Light Behind The World
These are most of my favorite bands and favorite songs from over the years, held together with some other songs in a symmetrical order.
Beat Happening - Other Side (1989)
Whistle as the wind blows to the lee
To my great surprise, both Rush songs on this list are from Fly By Night.
Camper Van Beethoven - Surprise Truck (1986)
"Sting me, queen me, queen sting dream me, dream queen sting me, sting queen!"
Rush - Anthem (1975)
With its patient intro, epic quavery vocals, nested threefold structure, and meaning of life theme, it's strangely similar to the next...
In an impossible coincidence, out of millions of songs, the same one has both my favorite sound and my favorite lyrics. It's both sappy and chthonic, and I'm so overwhelmed by its terrible beauty that I only listen to the whole thing a few times a year.
After the Holy Mother, the Holy Father. Wait for the blastoff at 3:26.
R.E.M. - Belong (1991)
The sea is the oneness of life to which we all return.
Space Elf Convergence
In a perfect playlist, every song seems like the best thing ever and then the next song blows it away. The top list is more personal but this one is more nearly perfect.
Cocteau Twins - Pandora (1984)
Big Blood - Sequins (2007)
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004)
This is the twee Stairway to Heaven.
Song for Song For Baltimore
Approaching my favorite song on a smoother path.
The Cranberries - Dreams (1993)
R.E.M. - Belong (1991)
Formative Age Pop Hits
Some of my favorite newer songs sound suspiciously like some of these.
Bread - If (1971)
Queen - We Will Rock You (1977)
Gerry Rafferty - Baker Street (1978)
Cheap Trick - Surrender (1978)
Blondie - Heart of Glass (1979)
E.L.O. - Don't Bring Me Down (1979)
Journey - Don't Stop Believing (1981)
A Flock of Seagulls - Space Age Love Song (1982)
Best of the 2010's
Excluding Big Blood, and in chronological order for now.
Red Fang - Wires (2011)
The best rock video I've ever seen.
Windhand - Orchard (2013)
My favorite doom metal song, but I'm still not happy with the vocals.
Diane Coffee - Green (2013)
Esben and the Witch - No Dog (live 2014)
Play it loud.
Your Friend - Bangs (2014)
Her most distinctive song, but Tame One
is also great, and the band Living Hour has a similar sound.
Benjamin Clementine - Cornerstone (2015)
(untitled countdown that I intend to break up and redistribute)
Why is it, when Led Zeppelin took rock to the next level, everyone imitated them, but when they took folk to the next level, no one imitated them?
Probably the best single performance in the history of rock.
Dean Wareham sings like Adam Sandler but in this song it somehow makes an epic guitar crescendo even better.
Normally I don't even like emo, but you never know where lightning will strike. Bear the weight of yourselves lightly and keep your eyes on the road. (Thanks Troy.)
5. The Gathering Field - Lost In America (1996)
Another 1996 song that blows away its mediocre genre, in this case heartland rock. (Thanks Patricia.)
You have to digest a lot of weirdness to hear how good this is.
3. Orphans & Vandals - Terra Firma (2009)
Like Song For Baltimore, an intense song about the light beyond the veil, but this is about a suicide.
2. Orphans & Vandals - Argyle Square (2009)
About a guy's life in the city and how he wants his lover to move there. Like Monet's wheatstacks, this song takes something ordinary and makes it seem unspeakably wonderful. (Thanks Leigh Ann.)
This makes ordinary music sound like it was recorded with a cat sitting on the microphone. Every sonic texture is sharp-edged and beautiful, the mix is airtight, and the high keyboard and electric guitar, at 2:30 and again at 4:00, are brighter than the sun.
Unlisted Top Tier
Rex Holman was a cowboy villain actor who made only one album, Here In The Land Of Victory. This is his most magical and inspired song, and the one where he pushes his weird voice the farthest.
Blue Oyster Cult - Astronomy (live 1978)
Camper Van Beethoven - June (1989)
This song is the key to my musical taste. After lyrics like 19th century poetry, it explodes in a whacked out violin solo by Don Lax.
The Kinks - Strangers (1970)
By Dave Davies. Ray is the brains of the Kinks but Dave is the heart.
I played this loud and often in the early 90's.
Orphans & Vandals - Metropes (2009)
Thematically this is like an old Kinks song that cynically mocks the elite, but it's darker and much more powerful. How can people compare this to the Velvet Underground without noticing how much better it is?
This makes Bohemian Rhapsody sound like children's music.
In the blend of sounds, this is like practice for their greatest song, Belong.
R.E.M. - Crazy (1987)
Picasso once remarked that when he does something new, someone else comes along and does it prettier. This is much prettier than the Pylon original, but I can hear why REM always said Pylon was better than them, because it also has a weird edge that's in no other REM song.
"September's coming soon, I'm pining for the moon, and what if there were two, side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?"
This has even happier music and sadder lyrics than "Tom Dooley". The narrator is unreliable: his hometown is the depressing place and it's his life that's being wasted.
Sigur Rós - Svefn-g-englar (Sleepwalkers) (1999)
My favorite foreign language song, except for this
This is like the definition of psychedelic folk, unless it's Secret Garden
Band of Horses - The Funeral (2006)
Nothing else this sad rocks this hard. I would have it higher but the sound is a little too sugary. Following interpretations on songmeanings.com, I think it's about heroin addiction.
"How strange it is to be anything at all." This made me cry the first time I heard it, and for years it was my number one, but The Rise of Quinnisa Rose squashes it like a bug.
Neutral Milk Hotel - Little Birds (1998)
Live version, for years available only as a bootleg. I'm not sure whether the 2011 box set contains this or another version.
Basically an upgrade of the Kinks' Waterloo Sunset: sadder, deeper, and more raw. The bit starting at 1:25 is like nothing before and not much since.
At its best, their second album combines the careful structure of their first album and the off-the-rails beauty of their third.
Big Star - Kangaroo (1975)
For years I thought this song was shit, but with the help of Big Blood's Haystack I finally understood its barely focused chaos.
To my knowledge, the only song with this stunning symmetrical structure: first verse, different verse, chorus, solo, chorus, different verse, first verse.
His greatest lyrics, including the best rhyme in English: "I lost my St Christopher now that I've kissed her." I follow Bones Howe's interpretation, that Matilda represents all the women who catalyzed the failures of homeless men.
Instrumentals and Jams
Yo La Tengo - Spec Bebop (1997)
Is it pronounced Space Bebop? If you think it's boring, try it on marijuana.
Nisennenmondai - Mirrorball (2008)
Like Spec Bebop this is inspired by krautrock, but takes it in a different direction, toward space jazz. The complexity is mind-boggling.
Moondog - Torisa (1995)
I've never been into classical music, but I absolutely love this track because it has a hypnotic rhythm and gets gradually more epic. This and the one below are from the Rare Material double CD, the first half of which was a 1995 album called Big Band.
Ten minutes of primal space rock with a barrage of low horns playing the same two notes over and over. These remind me of two Hawkwind songs -- Invocation is like Space Is Deep and Torisa is like Wind of Change.
With inspired sonic layering and Nik Turner jamming on oboe, this is what the climax of Space Oddity might sound like stretched out to four minutes.
No other instrumental is this pretty and this raw.
The Velvet Underground - What Goes On (1969 live)
The first part with vocals is nothing special, but the jam for the last six minutes is unprecedented and all-important in the history of my favorite music.
Sort of a cover of What Goes On.
Dick Dale - Misirlou (1962)
I love Bob Dylan's voice, and somehow he also did one of my favorite instrumentals. From the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
My favorite post-rock band is almost post-human. If you put all music on a primitive-civilized spectrum, coyote packs are at one end and the other end is Mono.
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.
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.
Sting's songwriting was a trick to get people to listen to the genius of Summers and Copeland, which was never better than this.
One of the deepest roots of my favorite newer jam music.
Too Many Zooz - Dima (2014)
Have you ever seen a band complain that the audience wasn't giving them enough attention? The Beatles didn't do it so nobody should. Too Many Zooz started out in NYC subways trying to earn the attention of distracted listeners, and their music never wastes a second.
Moon Hooch - Bari 3 (2014)
Retro Remix Revue - Gerudo Valley (2009)
The best version of my favorite video game track, composed by Koji Kondo for Zelda Ocarina of Time.
Yes - Würm (1970)
The last section of Starship Trooper. It's no Space Is Deep, but it's still the best jam in prog rock.
A weird brief epic about the eternal feminine, and a taste of the heights they'd reach on their next album.
Their happiest song.
Camper Van Beethoven - Klondike (199?)
And their weirdest song.
Stamey has put different versions on three albums, and the best is the one on Fireworks.
It took me a bunch of listens to hear that their best songs are the ones with both lead singers harmonizing on a repeating chorus.
Continuing in chronological order, this is the "hole in my head" song.
The "long goodbyes" song.
The first half is the scaffolding and the second half is the rocket.
Joanna Newsom - Sadie (2004)
"And all that we built, and all that we breathed, and all that we spilt, or pulled up like weeds, is piled up in back; and it burns irrevocably."
Best breakup song ever. Check out this interpretation
I love the verse about the birds.
Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind (1975)
I can never resist singing along with this. YouTube only has the New York version that was correctly cut from the album.
Bob Dylan - Visions of Johanna (1966)
Like some the songs at the top of this page, this is about the tension between the world of spirit (Johanna) and the world of flesh (Louise).
Bob Dylan - Girl From The North Country (1963)
On a good stereo the final harmonica solo is the heaviest thing Bob Dylan has ever played, and it draws emotion from the lyrics.
Bob Dylan - One More Cup Of Coffee (1976)
After REM's Belong, this is the song I'd play to convince aliens to not exerminate humanity. (If I wanted them to do it, I'd play We Are The World.)
Corndolly - Come Out (1992?)
Happy lesbian love song by a forgotten Illinois band.
One of my favorite songs to dance to.
Beat Happening - Tiger Trap (1992)
Dire Straits - Skateaway (1980)
Their most magical song.
Their most ambitious and epic song, and one of the best guitar solos ever.
Like Skateaway, this is a beautiful song about the divine feminine. It's not as precise and complex, but the whole sound on Communique has a depth that's not on any of their other albums.
Sultans of Swing has a great guitar solo, but otherwise this leaves it in the dust.
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
You have to go back to "Like a Rolling Stone" for a song that's both this good and this influential. After listening to 90's rock inspired by Nirvana, it's incredible to listen to this and hear how much better it is.
Nirvana - untitled (1993)
Eventually titled "Sappy", it was untitled in its original release (on the No Alternative compilation) and there was no title consistently attached to it from the beginning. Great metaphysical song.
Nirvana's famous live version is based on Mark Lanegan's version on which Cobain and Novoselic play guitar and bass. Lanegan is covering a Leadbelly version of an old folk song called In The Pines.
Not a fan of their sound, but these might be my second favorite lyrics.
U2 - Bad (live 1985)
Originally from his tinny-sounding first album, Gary Numan's best written song sounds
much better live in the movie Urgh! A Music War
Bob Mould's best songs are the saddest, and Grant Hart's best songs are the happiest...
Red House Painters - Katy Song (1993)
I don't like Mark Kozelek's lyrics or voice nearly as much as I used to, but this song is still musically brilliant. A great band should cover it.
Galaxie 500 - Flowers (1988)
This is what reverb was invented for.
Bone Cellar - Dryrot (1994)
Great obscure Seattle band, with one of my favorite guitar solos.
The full-length version totally rocks!
The Flaming Lips edge out Neutral Milk Hotel in the category of best band worst name.
I like the KEXP live version best, and made the video with a camera toss image I found on the internet years ago.
The Velvet Underground - Venus in Furs (1967)
In terms of the sound, this is their most interesting and enduring song.
The Velvet Underground - Candy Says (1968)
And this is their best written song. Sung by Doug Yule.
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 ever, after Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun".
His best lyrics and his prettiest backing music.
Of all the stuff my parents played when I was a kid, only Gordon Lightfoot has stuck.
The most mature breakup song I've ever heard. (lyrics)
The superior Gord's Gold version of this song was cut from the CD and to this day has not been offered for sale in digital form. But it has been ripped from vinyl and it's on YouTube now.
I love the structure of this song: a simple 18 note vocal melody repeated 16 times with changing lyrics.
Violent Femmes - Never Tell (1984)
More like a collection of scraps than a song, but every scrap is intense and inspired.
Clearly inspired by Bob Dylan's Ballad of Hollis Brown.
Weird song about the ancient conflict between sedentary and nomadic culture.
Neil Diamond - Soolaimon (1970)
The catchiest song ever.
The second catchiest song ever.
The Beatles - Rain (1966)
My favorite Beatles song and Ringo's best drumming. I write more about the Beatles here
Did ZZ Top take their whole sound from this?
Harriet Wheeler was the hottest woman who ever recorded a great song.
Neil Young - Helpless (1970)
Neil Young - The Needle and the Damage Done (1972)
A perfect song, and I love the unexpected quick ending.
Neil Young - Powderfinger (1979)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put a Spell on You (1956)
The songwriting is nothing special but the performance is one of the most interesting things in the 20th century. Instead of covering it, other artists should try to play their own compositions with this kind of wild intensity.
The Old 97's - Valentine (1999)
Loudon Wainwright - New Paint (1972)
The best version of Kris Kristofferson's best song.
The best classic punk song.
The second best classic punk song, and my favorite band name.
The third best classic punk song.
Flying Burrito Brothers - Sin City (1969)
The original alt-country band.
It's like a post-punk When The Levee Breaks.
I was heavily into Wall of Voodoo in the 80's. Later I found out they took most of their sound from the song "Machines" by Lothar and the Hand People.
Joanna Newsom's "En Gallop" is sort of a cover of this. 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.
Mind blowing cover of the Johnny Cash song.
The Muffs - Lucky Guy (1993)
I was obsessed with the Muffs in the mid 90's. This is the only song that made me dance the first time I heard it.
Kim Shattuck is the best screamer ever.
From their brilliant second album, Leave Home
This would make an awesome country song.
Ramones - Blitzkrieg Bop (1976)
I didn't fully appreciate this song until I heard Yo La Tengo's instrumental version.
Willie Nelson - Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain (1975)
Donovan - Atlantis (1968)
The first half is an embarrassing spoken word bit, and the second half, a fourteen syllable repeating chorus, is one of the best things ever.
Loreena McKennitt - Greensleeves (1991)
She's famous for music that's super-clean, but this was improvised in one take, and its rawness makes it sort of her best song.
Antenna - Snakes (1991)
There are heavy bands that have great soft and pretty songs, but how often does a soft band make a great noisy song? And why did they back away from this sound instead of pushing it farther?
The Shins - New Slang (2001)
Here's another video
showing the album cover references in that video.
A decent new wave pop song followed by an incredible drone jam.
Have A Nice Life - Earthmover (2008)
Again, pretty good song, great jam.
The live version from The Secret Policeman's Other Ball
Forgotten political song about how people are tricked into believing in the system that feeds on them.
It's easier to unlock genius by trying to be bad than trying to be good, and Steve Mauldin was an experienced recording engineer with good vocal control who recorded this masterpiece of badness by intentionally making every mistake he had ever heard bad singers make. What if someone put the same crazy energy into an equally spiritual song
with better lyrics and hit the notes?
Top 20 in chronological order
Blue Oyster Cult - Astronomy (1978)
Camper Van Beethoven - June (1989)
R.E.M. - Belong (1991)
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004)
Orphans & Vandals - Argyle Square (2009)
Orphans & Vandals - Terra Firma (2009)