Songs That Shouldn’t Be Missed (Part 1)
The following is the first installment in a series of lists that have one simple premise: to present songs—from any artist, era, or genre—that are aesthetically pleasing, musically deft, emotionally resonant, or some combination of these. There are no hard and fast rules for this list; my goal is to introduce a set of songs that are, to be perfectly forthright, good. I wouldn’t be disappointed if some of you are familiar with 9 out of 10 songs here, and that this list simply serves as a reminder to you. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if every one of these are new to you. Some of these songs are critically well regarded, yet disastrously overlooked by the public; others are still tucked away from the sight of critics yet flourish in the view of the people; the majority, however, will lie somewhere in between.
10) “The Perfect Life” — Moby, Innocents (2013)
I love this song unabashedly. Right from the get-go, it screams bubblegum pop, and I love it. Moby, the maestro of ambient/gospel-techno/house (it’s a thing… now), teams up with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, our generation’s answer to Pink Floyd, Yes, and Van Der Graaf Generator. So what, you ask, is the result of this duo? A track that exudes perfection, harmony, and sunshine. The choir that is introduced at the beginning and continues throughout is awakening and rejuvenates the soul. You can almost see the sunshine beaming down on this track, as if Moby and Coyne were ascending to the Pearly Gates as they penned this pristine track. This is upbeat pop at its finest.
And then you look at the lyrics.
And then you look at the lyrics.
9) “Common People” — Pulp, Different Class (1995)
The narrator—seemingly of the common people—meets a girl at college whose father is well off. The girl, though, appears not to care much for her luxurious life—no, she wants adventure, she wants thrill, she wants danger. She wants to “live like common people / …see whatever common people see / …sleep with common people / …sleep with common people like me.” As she approaches the narrator so that he may teach her how to live like him (“Rent a flat above the shop / Cut your hair and get a job / Smoke some fags and play some pool / Pretend you never went to school”), he simultaneously reproaches her for her inane treatment of such a serious social issue, satirically comparing her to a tourist who passes through destitution (e.g. slum tourism) without fully understanding the implications of their actions and transgressions. His derision is poignant and incisive—probably enough so to make anyone feel like shit for thinking the ideas the girl does.
8) “More Than This” — Roxy Music, Avalon (1982)
Here is a subtly sexy song. Or maybe it’s not even subtle at all. Between Bryan Ferry’s immaculate croon, that soft yet enduring synthesizer, and that absolutely grooving bass work, this song simply exudes all that new wave cool that was so impeccably produced beyond sonic reason. Besides the guitar work at the beginning of the track, no instrument consistently stands out that much—everything blends together and that’s the point so that when the groovy bass lick comes along, or the drummer hits the tom with just a little more force, those unique sounds fill the entire space and time they occupy. And boy do they do so with style.
7) “Pieholden Suite” — Wilco, Summerteeth (1999)
Listen to the music. It begins slowly, somberly, arising out of a void with Jeff Tweedy’s longing vocals accompanied by a soft organ. It’s all a bit of a whirl as a little light drumming, piano, bass, and rain sprinkle the first minute and a half or so. But around the 1:27 mark (“In the beginning we closed our eyes…”) the drumbeat picks up and the full orchestral arrangement comes to the fore—and that is musical magic. It breaks down later, until the music is diminished solely to a bass, but is once again carried away by a rousing ensemble of horns, organ, and drums.
6) “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhhh!”—Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)
One of the most accomplished albums of the 2000s gave us this number. It carries all the musical whimsy and rhythmic orchestration of Illinois’s famous track “Chicago,” but apparently without any of the emotional weight. With Sufjan Stevens, you come to expect nothing less than such poignant heft (see Carrie & Lowell (2015), please), and Illinois is no exception. But this song, above all, sounds fun, and, to be sure, is fucking ridiculous. The rhythmic chorus at the beginning is mesmerizing, and Stevens’ entrance, then accompanied only by his electric guitar and the slightest synth, is enthralling. As the song progresses and the chorus continues, you gain no clearer picture of what he is singing about (this track, like the rest of the album, is so riddled with Illinois history and geography that even a few handy Wikipedia pages do little to satisfy one’s curiosity). But none of that matters: what matters is that Sufjan Stevens has created a near-perfect art rock song, funky, epic, and literate to its very last beat.
5) “In The Year 2525” — Zager & Evans, 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) (1969)
This might not be the catchiest tune from a one-hit wonder, but it damn sure is the smartest, if not the most imaginative. There is something truly wonderful about this song. As Denny Zager and Rick Evans presage the outcome of this planet in the not too distant (?) future, 60s folk around the world must have connected so personally to this song—and of course its overriding message of mankind’s acquiescence to technological advancements—that they collectively shot it to the top of the charts. And yet, as the track’s message comes to a close—“In the year 9595, I'm kinda wonderin' if Man is gonna be alive / He's taken everything this old Earth can give, and he ain't put back nothin' ”—one can’t help but think that maybe our generation needs a chart-topping hit just like this.
4) “Lipstick Vogue” — Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model (1978)
Pete Thomas delivers a blistering drum riff to open the track right up. Sure, the bass is fast and grooving, the organ spooky, and Costello’s vocals mesmerizing, but this song belongs to the drummer, the guy who on this track delivers one of the most inspired studio performances in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The band is going 70 mph. Thomas, meanwhile, started at 80 mph, brings it up to 90 for his climactic solo, and then brings it back down to Earth (for a little bit of a organ/drum breakdown), before shooting off with Costello once more for the finale of this short, yet breathtakingly exhilarating song.
3) “Funky Squaredance”— Phoenix, United (2000)
I tried and toiled, and I still couldn’t figure out how to classify this song. It moves from electro-swing/blues to disco funk straight from the 80s, before being completed by an epic guitar-driven rock finale that would make Brian May proud. Maybe with this track Phoenix actualized a new genre. Why not call it funky squaredance?
2) “Moment Of Surrender” — U2, No Line On The Horizon (2009)
Everyone knows “With or Without You” (1987). We’ve all heard “One” (1991). And yet, relatively few people are familiar with this masterpiece—and I use that term sparingly enough—from U2. You could probably explain this lapse by pointing out the unpopularity of No Line On The Horizon, an album that rarely reaches those Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991) or All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) heights—though it does indeed warm up after a few listens. This song, however, is the anchor, and what an anchor it is. In classic U2 fashion, this elegiac ballad soars with Bono’s rough cries for surrender, redemption, and God, as the Edge weighs on his vocals with a guitar played soothingly and masterfully. If only U2 had uploaded people’s iPods with this track instead of “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” (2014)…
1) “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts” — M83, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts: Remixes & B-Sides (2003)
There isn’t really much I can say about this one even if it is very long, clocking in at more than 17 minutes. It’s all noise, beginning as an ambient reflection on whatever your imagination can devise. A little over halfway, though, the sci-fi energy kicks in and your interstellar cruiser is heating up in preparation to hit hyper-drive. The engines begin to thrust, Earth disappearing behind you. But you aren’t aware of this, for your mind is focusing on the destination that awaits beyond the thick black veil of stars, and the new worlds that lie ahead. The new age of discovery is upon you, and something there greater than gold glitters. You will find up there.