The 100 Greatest Songs (30-21)

30. “Louie Louie”  Written by Richard Berry, Performed by the Kingsmen (1957)

“A blast of raw guitars and half-intelligible shouting recorded for $52, the Kingsmen’s cover of Richard Berry’s R&B song hit Number Two in 1963 — thanks in part to supposedly pornographic lyrics that drew the attention of the FBI. The Portland, Oregon, group accidentally rendered the decidedly noncontroversial lyrics (about a sailor trying to get home to see his lady) indecipherable by crowding around a single microphone. ‘I was yelling at a mike far away,’ singer Jack Ely told Rolling Stone. ‘I always thought the controversy was record-company hype.'” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”

29. “Heartbreak Hotel”  Written by Mae Boren Axton and Thomas Durden, Performed by Elvis Presley (1956)

“The opening strains of ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ which catapulted Presley’s regional popularity into national hysteria, opened a fissure in the massive mile-thick wall of post-war regimentation, standardization, bureaucratization, and commercialization in American society and let come rushing through the rift a cataract from the immense waters of sheer, human pain and frustration that had been building up for ten decades behind it.” –Robert Cantwell, Twigs of Folly

28. “My Girl”  Written by William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. and Ronald White, Performed by the Temptations (1964)

“Arguably the most unabashedly romantic moment in the Motown canon, its simple yet exquisitely graceful metaphors (‘I’ve got so much honey, the bees envy me’) and sublime melody add up to one of the most blissful love songs ever created. Propelled by a signature James Jamerson bass riff, ‘My Girl’ is so perfectly constructed from its sun-kissed string arrangements down to its finger-popping rhythm that almost anyone could have sung it, which only makes the scene-stealing vocals of David Ruffin that much more remarkable. A sweeter song than the birds in the trees, indeed.” –Jason Ankeny, AllMusic.com

27. “Blowin’ in the Wind”  Written and Performed by Bob Dylan (1963)

“Inarguably the peak of modern protest songwriting, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ transformed Bob Dylan from hipster folky to cultural sensation and provided the growing protest community with an anthem equally applicable to every kind of injustice ever visited upon the Earth… As with most of his other classics, Dylan makes a complex song sound deceptively simple; in each of the three verses, he asks three rhetorical questions, and answers each time with the chorus… [T]he answers reflect the Taoist mantra that the solution is obvious to all who truly think about it, yet impossible to grasp with any type of standard explanation.” –John Bush, AllMusic.com

26. “Summertime”  Written by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, Performed by Billie Holiday / Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong (1935)

“In February of 1934 George Gershwin had completed the first of the Porgy and Bess songs, a DuBose Heyward poem set to music called ‘Summertime.’ … By August of 1935 George had completed [the opera]. After producing nearly 700 pages of music he is said to have exclaimed, ‘I think the music is so marvelous I don’t believe I wrote it.’ … Will Friedwald describes ‘Summertime’ as ‘the best-known piece of music in the opera.’ He goes on to comment that its ‘lyrics are rife with religious imagery…’ and it ‘is not only a lullaby but a spiritual as well.'” –Jeremy Wilson, JazzStandards.com

25. “Stardust”  Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish, Performed by Hoagy Carmichael & His Pals (1927)

“Carmichael’s melody for Stardust started off as an up-tempo dance tune. It’s been likened to a horn solo, and many jazz musicians love to play it because its roots are in jazz. But later, lyrics were added, and it was slowed to a ballad. By the end of the 1930s, Stardust was an American classic. It’s been recorded more than two thousand times. Carmichael loved the tune, and recorded several versions himself. The melody came to him one night while in school at Indiana University.” –NPR 100

24. “Every Breath You Take”  Written by Sting, Performed by the Police (1983)

“It’s subtle, yes, but once it clicks that the song is really about a possessive stalker, the lyrics all fall into place… Guitarist Andy Summers picks a nearly identical arpeggio pattern on each chord he plays, and Sting’s bass line keeps a steady eighth-note pulse without much rhythmic variation. The construction is water-tight, with no wasted time… It’s a perfect pop single that tweaks the conventions of the genre, and once you’ve discovered the subtext, you may very well start hearing echoes of ‘Every Breath You Take’ in quite a few other songs that are supposed to be sincerely romantic.” –Steve Huey, AllMusic.com

23. “Light My Fire”  Written by the Doors, Performed by the Doors / José Feliciano (1967)

“The Doors left behind two or three strong albums, some credible white boy blues, and a string of classic singles — particularly ‘Light My Fire.’ The jam in the middle was too much for the radio edit, but each solo’s a note-for-note classic — Ray Manzarek’s fierce and melodic organ improvisation, followed by Robby Krieger’s smoking, macho-in-his-own-mind fretwork, build the song to a back-clawing climax before Morrison waltzes in for the close. Listen with fresh ears and you’ll discover that Jimbo and crew became icons for all the wrong reasons — and there’s nothing dated about a performance like this.” –Chris Dahlen, Pitchfork.com

22. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”  Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Performed by the Beatles (1963)

“‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was one of the most important songs in rock history. It was the first Beatles song to become a hit in the United States, rocketing to number one in early 1964; it was the song most responsible for making the group an international phenomenon; and it was the song that launched the British Invasion. And, historical concerns aside, it was a great song… The softer, almost ballad-like bridge is an effective contrast to the more highly charged verses, particularly when the group revisits that opening stuttering guitar figure to deliver the exclamation ‘I can’t hide,’ overflowing with giddy enthusiasm, impatience, and celebration.” –Richie Unterberger, AllMusic.com

21. “What’s Going On”  Written by Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland and Marvin Gaye, Performed by Marvin Gaye (1971)

“‘What’s Going On’ is an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis… Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops presented Gaye with a song he had written with Motown staffer Al Cleveland. But Gaye made the song his own, overseeing the arrangement and investing the topical references to war and racial strife with private anguish… Gaye invoked his own family in moving prayer: singing to his younger brother Frankie, a Vietnam veteran, and appealing for calm closer to home… Initially rejected as uncommercial, ‘What’s Going On’ was Gaye’s finest studio achievement, a timeless gift of healing.” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”

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