The hardest thing about writing this wasn’t thinking of songs I love, or explaining why I think they’re great – it was trying to put them in an order. Many are apples and oranges. It’s hard to rank art. For example, the rawness and immediacy of a punk song might seem out of place next to a song that exemplies melody and craft, but each has their own validity. Think of these songs as colours on a somewhat-circular palette rather than a ladder descending to what is “best”.
10. Germs – Manimal (1979)
When I saw this song as a youth in the LA punk documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization it didn’t immediately strike me. The Germs’ performance was so sloppy and Darby Crash was so out of it that it was almost comical. If it hadn’t been subtitled, I might not have noticed the lyrics. They are brilliant, pure poetry. Perhaps the most elegant expression of existentialism, struggling against the world and one’s own demons ever put to music. The music (in the studio version) provides the perfect support, teetering on the brink of being out of control while somehow staying just inside the line.
9. Johnny Thunders – You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory (1978)
Reduced to a drug song by some, this Johnny Thunders song is much bigger than that. It expresses feelings of emptiness and insignifance as to one’s place in the universe that can’t be verbalized. In making us feel what can’t be put into words this song achieves what is really music’s highest calling.
8. Roy Orbison – In Dreams (1963)
This is the perfect Orbison song. I’ve always been drawn to dark music, and while that’s sometimes meant gothic, this is emotional darkness. Heartbreak never sounded so good. The tinge of underlying hope makes the pathos all the more powerful.
7. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980)
When I first heard this song as teen, Joy Division was unknown in the States to people who weren’t deeply into goth or postpunk music. The lyrics cut so deeply, and the melody was hypnotic, droning but spellbinding. There’s a reason so many punters know it now and it’s grown in stature so much over the years. Just when it couldn’t get any better, the brief quote of The Crystals And Then He Kissed Me at the end is the knockout blow.”
6. The Cure – Just Like Heaven (1987)
I’ve always found The Cure’s Robert Smith to be an underrated guitar player, because his playing is part of the songwriting. The guitar line is simple and could be played by a novice, but is incredibly beautiful and makes the song. It’s there to support, not to pointlessly show off. I’m not impressed by the overly complex in songwriting, I’m impressed by simple brilliance – and this song is it.
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5. The Beatles – If I Fell (1964)
The typical critical analysis of the The Beatles is that they started off writing inconsequential pop songs and only achieved true greatness after mindbending drug use and studio experimentation – false! While I do love mid-period Beatles as well, true genius is writing a song like this, telling a story in two-and-a-half minutes that is so personal, yet so universal. In the same way, it’s so melodic and accessible, while being fairly complex harmonically. I could choose many songs by them to represent this idea, but I’ve always loved this one.
4. The Smiths – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (1986)
The Smiths are another band that’s incredibly hard to pick a ‘best song’, but I think this one could be it. Marr composed incredible music, and the vocal melodies that Morrissey springboarded from it were seldom the obvious choices, making the twists and turns all the more thrilling. And the lyrics? Fatalism at its finest.
3. Misfits – Hybrid Moments (1985)
When the Misfits first released this song to the public on Legacy of Brutality, that version was so lo-fi that you needed a musician’s ear to discern the incredible melody layered within. When the original version was released on Static Age, a decade later I think more people began to recognise the inherent greatness of this song. The lyrics are poetic and abstract, with an accompanying structure that’s somewhat bizarre; held together by a melody that rivals any pop song. All this makes for not only one of the best punk songs ever, but one of the best in any genre.
2. Bill Monroe – Kentucky Waltz (1946)
This song is pure high lonesome. It’s a coyote howling at the moon, in the most beautiful way. It’s the heartbreak of young love, at its most elemental, forever.
1. Buddy Holly – Words of Love (1957)
In many ways this song, and others like it written by Buddy Holly, were the template for everything important that would follow in the 60s – be it The Beatles, who were obsessed with him, the Beach Boys finest work on Pet Sounds, you name it. The use of harmony is incredible, and knowing that it’s all him (the first artist to multitrack his own harmonies) makes it all the better.