I’ve listened to an unhealthy amount of music down the years. Recently someone asked me if I could name my top 10 songs, and aside from three or four that came to mind quickly, the rest was too difficult to sort. So I decided to put together a top 25 of sorts, in order from 25 to 1. I feel at peace now that I’ve done it, but I feel bad about all the great songs I’ve had to leave out. So it goes.
Music is an incredibly powerful thing. It can make you dance, make you tearful, uplift you, even put you in a state of melancholia. For me music has always been about some sort of emotional energy release. The best songs are the ones that just stick to you – even if you haven’t listened to them in years. The ones you find popping into your head for no reason on some random Tuesday afternoon while you’re driving on the N3 highway, or in the shower on a Saturday morning.
I suppose I’ve always been drawn to the creative poetry and artistry in music. I have a deep disdain for modern pop musicians who can’t even write their own songs. The best music for me is the music that moves you, the music that makes you feel – either through the depth and reality of the lyrics or the craft of the music composition. But I see the below list as a stock market of sorts. If I did this in 2 years’ time there may well be some variances.
So here it is. Firstly an honourable mentions list:
Go your own way – Fleetwood Mac
Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones
Wendell Gee – REM
Hurricane – Bob Dylan
Dignity – Bob Dylan
Things Have Changed – Bob Dylan
Not Dark Yet – Bob Dylan
Where do you think you’re going – Dire Straits
Layla – Eric Clapton
Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Feel Irie – Lucky Dube
Dust in the Wind – Kansas
Famous Blue Raincoat – Leonard Cohen
Man on the Moon – REM
And here you go:
25. Down to the Waterline – Dire Straits
Most will point to Sultans of Swing, Money for Nothing, or Telegraph Road. But this first song from their first albums captures the classic Dire Straits rhythmic sound perfectly.
24. Hurt – Johnny Cash
Recorded when he knew he was dying. Powerful and emotional. It feels to me like no one was better qualified to cover this song than Johnny Cash, who stared into the abyss, and really knew what being ‘Hurt’ meant, but came back out again.
23. Brilliant Disguise – Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen wrote the entire Tunnel of Love album in 1987 when his wife and him were going through a divorce. This song feels like it’s more truth than fiction. The narrator eventually sees himself as the ultimate problem rather than his partner. This isn’t a love song, but more a song about love – and possibly the best song about love ever written. Springsteen does that magical thing with the lyrics in making it seemingly simple yet layered with complex nuances at the same time.
22. Big River – Jimmy Nail
The story about a man’s re-collections of the coal mines of Newcastle being shut down in the 80’s and his father going out of work. Based on true events.
21. Space Age Love Song – A Flock of Seagulls
I love the 80’s sound. Pity I couldn’t fit more 80’s in this list. Bands like OMD, Flock of Seagulls and Yazoo had some incredible moments.
20. Fields of Gold – Sting
Quiet, melancholic, sentimental. Always liked it. I don’t listen to it that much anymore, strangely.
19. Cause – Rodriguez
Like so many great artists, the general public only get exposed to a couple of the popular songs. But if you delve deeper, you find the real gems – the ones the radio didn’t play, but define the artist better. Rodriguez is the perfect example of this. Once you look deeper than Sugar Man and I Wonder, you’ll find this piece of art. No one was better at casually observing the life around him. Incredible lines like “Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun In weekends of whiskey sours. Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?” Or “My heart’s become a crooked hotel, full of rumours” Or, of course “The sweetest kiss I ever got, was the one I never tasted”.
My brother-in-law will always argue that he was better than Dylan. I say Dylan wins due to longevity and sheer volume of great work. But I have massive respect for Rodriguez.
18. Nothing Else Matters – Metallica
Feel like it’s a bit of a cliché putting this on. I’m not a Metallica fan by any means, and hardly know them beyond this. But this is one great rock ballad.
17.Visions of Joanna – Bob Dylan
Sounds just as good live as the recorded version. I always wondered how he remembered so many lines on stage. Beautiful writing. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying’ to be so quiet? We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it” – one of the best opening lines ever.
16. Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
One of those 70’s classics that just works whenever you put it on.
15. One – U2
Have to put this one in, despite the fact that I think Bono is a bit of an egomaniac who lives for publicity . Great song, when U2 were still good.
14. Sara – Fleetwood Mac
A quiet, brooding song that showcases the brilliance of Stevie Nicks’ voice. The greatest female voice in rock music, well, for me anyway. No one knows if this was about lost love, her aborted baby or cocaine addition.
13. Going to California – Led Zeppelin
A quiet acoustic number that invokes mystical images of white horses, Celtic hills and fairytales. That’s probably exactly what Plant and Page wanted though. And they were probably seeing white horses in Celtic hills while they wrote this, stoned out of their minds.
12. Never Going Back Again – Fleetwood Mac
I was in a random coffee shop about 3 years ago when they were playing this song on a record player. I knew Fleetwood Mac, but was astounded to see this was them when I looked at what was playing. It got me into the classic, classic Rumours album. This, for me, is the underestimated gem of the album. A weird little 3 minute masterpiece.
The interesting thing I always think about is that my two favourite albums of all time are Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and Animals by Pink Floyd. During the making of both of those albums, there were major rifts within the bands. Fleetwood Mac’s was caused by personal relationships within the band including betrayal and break ups, so bad that they couldn’t be in the studio at the same time. With Pink Floyd the creative division between Roger Waters and David Gilmour was putting everything on edge. And yet they managed to create these masterworks. Maybe human nature needs strife and pressure to optimise creativity?
11. Pigs – Pink Floyd
Sandwiched in the middle of the Animals album. An album of pretty much 3 songs that for me is the greatest achievement in rock music history. Waters drew inspiration from Orwell’s Animal Farm, and looked at society in 3 groups. Dogs, Pigs and Sheep, and regarded each group with equal contempt.
In this 11 minute masterpiece, Roger Water is his usual scathing and biting self with the lyrics. It’s a hard, progressive sound that won’t appeal to everyone, but for me is a perfect centrepiece to Floyd’s greatest album.
10. Mansion on the Hill – Bruce Springsteen
A quiet acoustic track from the Nebraska album – an album he recorded on his own as a demo in his house. Nobody in today’s music could pull off this level of brilliance on their own – from recording to writing to singing to playing the instruments on his own. This song was about a boy growing up in a small town. The ‘Mansion on the Hill’ I always saw as a metaphor for things we can never have – a life we can never quite attain – yet it’s visible to us all the time. For some reason, makes me think of my own old man. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.
9. When the Levee Breaks – Led Zeppelin
Incredible guitar riffing from Jimmy Page, and larger-than-life drumming from John Bonham. A song from 1971 that hasn’t aged at all. Off the legendary Led Zeppelin IV album. Most will point to Stairway to Heaven off that album, but this is better. Ridiculously good rock music.
8. Once Upon a Time in the West – Ennio Morricone
The theme song of the move Once Upon a Time in the West. Just pure instrumental and opera-like singing. Can’t say too much about this, other than being one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. A song like this could turn any mundane scene in any movie into an epic scene.
7. Brownsville Girl – Bob Dylan
Bob fans would be shocked if they saw this relatively unknown song of his from the 80’s as the highest Dylan entry on this list. An 11 minute story that seems to pan across the entire American Midwest. Brilliant imagery, and some characteristically good Dylan lines.
6. Time – Pink Floyd
I’ll never forget the first time I listened to Pink Floyd properly. I was a teenager and decided to take a chance on a ‘best of’ CD, knowing very little about this mysterious band other than their popularity and esteem. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. When listening to some of their songs for the first time, I remember my only thought being “MY GOD!” After dabbling in some inferior music during my teenage years, I’d finally found real classic rock music. The memory still makes me smile, and this is the song I recall as the first one that got me hooked. A song about how time seems to speed up as we get older, and after every day we find ourselves “Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death” (typical Floyd realism). I’m sure everybody can relate to the words “Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time. Plans that either come to nought, or half a page of scribbled lines”
5. Racing in the Street – Bruce Springsteen
Starts off as a song about cars. Ends of as a song about life, death and a desperate search for fulfilment and happiness. Those opening piano notes will always give me gooseflesh. Maybe this song works so well for me because I can relate so much to the narrator (although I’ve never wanted to race cars in the street). Can never work out if the final lines are about salvation or suicide.
4. Kashmir – Led Zeppelin
One of the most epic 7 minutes in the history of music. Pure bliss. Like most Led Zep songs, after listening to this, you feel like you could walk out into battle.
3. Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen
When Springsteen wrote the song Born to Run on the same album, he said he was aiming to write the greatest song in rock n roll history. Despite the greatness of that song – I think he comes closer to that achievement with this. There’s a real magic in this song, about rebellious teenagers looking to break out of a ‘town full of losers’. But there’s an undertone of gritty reality and melancholy that makes this great. Always loved the line “Hey what else can we do now except roll down the windows and let the wind blow back your hair. Well the night’s busting open and these two lanes will take us anywhere.”
2. Closing Time – Leonard Cohen
Written in the 90’s when Cohen was close to 60. But the amount of truth in the lyrics could only have come from someone with all the experience of life. A song about obvious complexities of relationships, how youthful vigour and lust can never seem to last. How a lack of fulfilment and the search for it can lead to an eventual realisation years later on what really matters. Must have taken me 100 listens to finally ‘get’ this song. Incredible lyrics, incredibly delivered. “I lift my glass to the Awful truth, which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth, except to say it isn’t worth a dime”
1. Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
The majestic, unrivalled champion of all Pink Floyd songs. The depressing melancholic theme (synonymous with Pink Floyd) of a drug overdosed rock star being helped back to life as he has flashbacks to his innocent childhood is delivered brilliantly by Gilmour’s harmonious voice. It’s rock music at its most beautiful. And after the beauty of the lyrics and final chorus, Gilmour just goes and plays the greatest guitar solo of all time.