I'm really surprised I've never written on this subject before. I've touched on music previously, of course, but apart from Christmas music I doubt any of my regular readers (all three of you!) have any idea of what I consider the apex of popular music. So, in alphabetical order, my ten favourite songs of all time.
"All Along the Watchtower," by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
While it was Bob Dylan who wrote "All Along the Watchtower," the original incarnation's only real strength was its lyrics; the structure was uninteresting, the harmonic bridges repetitive and the vocals, well, it's a Bob Dylan song. The Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1968 cover took Dylan's vaguely haunting lyrics and turned the ballad into a mildly terrifying apocalyptic anthem. From the opening seconds, wherein the song's instruments seem to not so much blend together as clash into each other, to Hendrix's shrieking, climactic guitar solo, it makes far better use of its lyrical content than Bob Dylan's original ever did.
"Edge of Seventeen (Just Like the White Winged Dove)," by Stevie Nicks
I don't say this nearly often enough--or at all, if my memory hasn't failed me--but man I love me some Stevie Nicks. I'm of the firm opinion that the modern music scene doesn't have enough throaty-voiced female singers (of course, I also think "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is a genuinely good song, so take that with a pound of salt). While initially put off by them, I've gradually warmed to this song's backing "Oooh, ooh, ooh"s. And that riff! Maybe the only reason I enjoy Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious." Also, for a song about death it's surprisingly intense--well, for a song about death that isn't by a metal band.
"Exile Vilify," by The National
You guys know I think Portal 2 is the best game ever made, but did you also know that the jewel of its top-notch soundtrack isn't on the official album and, in fact, is pretty much hidden within the game? Seemingly written from the perspective of Doug Rattman, the schizophrenic scientist who hides within Aperture Science's walls and leaves Chell those cryptic notes, "Exile Vilify" is a somber, piano-driven melody that stands apart from Mike Morasky's glitchy, electronic compositions. While certainly not as popular as the closing credits' pseudo-breakup song "Want You Gone" and the first game's "Still Alive," it's one of the most moving songs I've ever heard and certainly the best ever composed for a video game.
"My Body is a Cage," by Arcade Fire
At first listen, "My Body is a Cage" was an odd way to end Arcade Fire's sophomore album, especially coming hot off the heels of "No Cars Go," aka the happiest song ever written. But it's likely the grandest piece Arcade Fire has ever--and will ever--write, not so much building toward but launching into an organ-and-percussion-dominated cacophony that, given the volume at which I listen to most music, will permanently deafen me by 2036. In hindsight, it was actually the perfect song to end Neon Bible, a record that was largely about anxiety, apprehension and dread. Peter Gabriel's orchestrated cover might have taken it's place as my favourite version of the song, but I find it peters out after the symphonic climax, whereas the Arcade Fire maintains its intensity right up until the end. So instead, I leave you with an awesome video that syncs the original to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.
"Nowhere to Run," by Martha and the Vandellas
I'm not a soul fan, not in the sense that I dislike the genre but that I don't actively seek out selections of soul. I'm the same way about hip hop, now that I think of it, which should in no way dull my love of Kanye West's "Power." But I'm getting distracted. Holy crap, I can't believe I never heard this song until first playing Spec Ops: The Line this summer. You know how on occasion you'll hear a song whose upbeat tone disguises the utterly depressing or horrifying nature of its lyrics, like Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks"? I like to think "Nowhere to Run," which is basically about a woman unable to break out of a horrible relationship, started that trend. It's also used in a somewhat haunting fashion in Martin Scorsese's unfortunately overlooked Bringing Out the Dead.
"Outro," by M83
Remember Vangelis, the Greek guy who scored Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner? Well basically some French dude found a way to mainline his music, added some awesome drumwork, and wrote one of the greatest pieces in the history of popular music. There's really nothing I can say about this song that the song itself doesn't already.
"Say it Right," by Nelly Furtado
Where I come from, it's considered "uncool" to enjoy the works of Miss Furtado, but you know what? *takes drag off of imaginary cigarette* ...this song rules. The beat, the double-tracked vocals, that dude saying "Hey" every few seconds... I love it from start to finish, and I in no way feel shame in saying it's one of the best songs I've ever listened to. I even like the music video, posted above, which is the most mid-2000s pop-hip hop music video imaginable.
"The Sound of Silence," by Simon & Garfunkel
You know this song, one of the greatest in the history of folk music and as synonymous with The Graduate as "Mrs. Robinson"? I never even heard it until 2009, when it was used to open the Comedian's funeral scene in Watchmen. Sad, I know, but while I thoroughly enjoy music I will always be behind the times, likely the product of 2/3rds of my iTunes library consisting of orchestral music scores. By slightly altering the dyamics and without changing the tempo, it somehow builds in intensity better than Dylan's version of "Watchtower," and is equally as haunting (I like haunting music, if that wasn't already apparent). Also check out the original acoustic version recorded for Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.
"There There. (The Boney King of Nowhere.)," by Radiohead
In all honesty, this song's creeping lead guitar track is the greatest riff in the history of rock, and it's almost impossible not to airdrum along with the synthesized tom-tom rhythm (played by both Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien in live renditions). While I'm generally a fan of their more electronic or even jazzy work, "(The Boney King of Nowhere)," as I kind of prefer to call this song, is Radiohead at their most unified and creatively driven. It also resulted in a disturbing stop-motion video and a mournful acoustic version, both of which you should check out.
"The Way Out is Through," by Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor's main strength as a composer isn't in his melodies--though it goes without saying that they're great nonetheless--but in the way he can just put a piece together. Nine Inch Nails' 1999 double album The Fragile shows off some of his best work in that regard, chief among it "The Way Out is Through," which gradually builds in intensity in no small part due to the layering of various rhythms and melodies until it explodes at its climax. One day, I will get a job as a Hollywood music supervisor and close a movie with this tune, regardless of the director's say-so.
"Wild Is the Wind," by David Bowie
While Station to Station's title track paved the way for some of David Bowie's best work in the late '70s, it's his closing cover of an old Johnny Mathis tune that stands out, not only on the album but among his entire discography. It's the Thin White Duke (still his best persona) at his most introspective and reserved, letting loose sustained, mournful notes that sound more like the wails of a ghost than the coke-addicted musician Bowie was at the time.