The 100 Greatest Songs (10-1)

10. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”  Written by Steve Cropper and Otis Redding, Performed by Otis Redding (1968)

“Released at the beginning of 1968, Redding’s posthumous hit was a lamenting — and prescient — cry of resignation after the Summer of Love. It’s as immortal a song as r&b ever produced, renouncing all references to the transitory pleasures of love, rage, or infatuation. There’s merely Redding’s piteous hum, balanced by buoying guitar and slumberous horns… The lyrics pass from calmness to sorrow, pleasure to damage, bemusement to barrenness. It’s a repudiation of empty promises: Nothing’s blowin’ in the wind, no changes are gonna come, there’s ‘nothing to live for, and looks like nothing’s gonna come my way.’ He drives all the way to San Francisco just to remind himself that his life will never change. And then there’s that final nonchalant whistle, the most haunting and elegiac sound you could ever hear from a dead man’s #1 record.” –Alex Linhardt, Pitchfork.com, “The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s”

9. “White Christmas”  Written by Irving Berlin, Performed by Bing Crosby (1942)

“With ‘White Christmas,’ Berlin created an anthem that spoke eloquently to its historical moment, offering a comforting Christmastime vision to a nation frightened and bewildered by the Second World War… ‘White Christmas’ seems to have always existed, lurking, as one Berlin biographer has written, ‘just beneath the surface of national consciousness.’ … ‘White Christmas’ is the ultimate Berlin tearjerker, and if there are more decorous songs, there are few deeper ones. We cringe at its mawkishness, but our embarrassment should arise from the shock of self-recognition: three-hankie schmaltz is, to a large degree, the American way of song… ‘White Christmas’ is about as good a summary as we have of the contradictions that make pop music fascinating: it is beautiful and grotesque, tacky and transcendent.” –Jody Rosen, White Christmas: The Story of An American Song

8. “Imagine”  Written and Performed by John Lennon (1971)

“Lennon, as a former Beatle, was an expert in the pop vernacular. He once admitted that [the message of] ‘Imagine’ — an absolute equality created by the dissolution of governments, borders, organized religion and economic class — was ‘virtually the Communist Manifesto.’ But the elementary beauty of his melody, the warm composure in his voice and the poetic touch of co-producer Phil Spector…emphasized the song’s fundamental humanity. Lennon knew he had written something special. In one of his last interviews, he declared ‘Imagine’ to be as good as anything he had written with the Beatles. We know it’s better than that: an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon’s own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th. It is now impossible to imagine a world without ‘Imagine.'” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”

7. “Respect”  Written by Otis Redding, Performed by Aretha Franklin (1965)

“Otis Redding wrote ‘Respect’ and recorded it first, for the Volt label in 1965. But Aretha Franklin took possession of the song for all time with her definitive cover, made at Atlantic’s New York studio on Valentine’s Day 1967. ‘Respect’ was her first Number One hit and the single that established her as the Queen of Soul. In Redding’s reading, a brawny march, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn’t asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it… The late Tom Dowd, who engineered the date, credited [Aretha’s sister] Carolyn with the saucy breakdown in which Aretha spelled out the title: ‘I fell off my chair when I heard that!’ … [Producer Jerry Wexler said,] ‘Aretha would never play the part of the scorned woman….Her middle name was Respect.'” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”

6. “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock”  Written by Max Freedman and James E. Myers, Performed by Bill Haley & His Comets (1954)

“The American Legion and the Boy Scouts denounced it. The New York Times called it ‘nightmarish and bloodcurdling.’ And after it incited a near riot in a local theater, the city of Memphis banned it… [W]hen The Blackboard Jungle hit screens across the country, the controversial opening salvo of the film was a shot of amplified fury called ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley and the Comets. Music historians may disagree about who recorded the first rock ‘n’ roll song, but there’s no doubt about what record punched an electric guitar-shaped hole in the society at large… Comets bass player Marshall Lytle recalled in Haley’s bio, ‘We spent two-and-a-half hours on the A-side [‘Thirteen Women’] and 30 minutes on the B-side [‘Clock’], and in 30 minutes, we came up with what is now the anthem of rock ‘n’ roll.’ … [T]here were several magical elements to this two-minute, eight-second recording, but what really gave it a jolt of electricity was Danny Cedrone’s fiery, staccato guitar solo. 50 years later, it’s still thrilling.” –Bill DeMain, Performing Songwriter

5. “Over the Rainbow”  Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, Performed by Judy Garland (1939)

“Arlen wanted a ballad to start things off, to build a bridge between young Dorothy’s restlessness in Kansas and the wonders she meets in her fantasy land. One day, as his wife Anya was driving him through Los Angeles, he asked her to pull over. With the car idling, he jotted down a musical idea that would become ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Talk about dramatic: there’s a full-octave jump from the first note to the second, instantly expressing a vaulting emotion and challenging the singer. Simple yet sophisticated, the tune seemed a gift from above. As Arlen later recalled: ‘It was as if the Lord said, “Well, here it is. Now stop worrying about it.”‘ … Ira Gershwin…suggested the song’s kicker, which repeats the first two musical phrases of the bridge, then soars into ethereal yearning… [The Wizard of Oz eventually] became the hardiest of Hollywood perennials — largely because of the hope-against-hope power of the tune that Arlen had jotted down in his car. Three generations of viewers could join him in saying, ‘Thank you, Lord.'” –Richard Corliss, Time

4. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”  Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Performed by Marvin Gaye (1967)

“Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is Motown’s greatest record — really, what’s better? Even obscured by years of oldies radio overkill and Big Chill nostalgia it retains a hypnotic power unmatched by any of the label’s other classics, articulating the turmoil and anguish of a soul torn apart at the seams with a clarity unmatched in the annals of popular music. On its surface a desperate plea to salvage a relationship gone terribly wrong, ‘Grapevine’ progressively probes much deeper to convey complete emotional free-fall: haunted by lies, taunted by gossip and shattered by loss, Gaye’s torment is palpable, and his performance — the signature sophistication and elegance of his voice ravaged by fear and doubt — is devastating… [S]inister and serpentine, Norman Whitfield’s production twists the knife even further into Gaye’s back, orchestrating a rumor-mill chorus of whispers and echoes which reiterate the singer’s shame and humiliation over and over again.” –Jason Ankeny, AllMusic.com

3. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”  Written by Phil Spector, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Performed by the Righteous Brothers (1964)

“Spector made especially good use of [the Righteous Brothers’] talents, packaging their songs in a distinctive way as he pushed the boundaries of popular music using his then-becoming-famous ‘wall of sound’ technique — a flood of instrumentation behind good vocals that gave pop music a near-orchestral treatment and a distinctive ‘full and powerful’ sound… Years later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would single out the song, and Spector’s production, at the induction of the Righteous Brothers. ‘Spector heard a deeper potential in the blend of [Bill] Medley’s earthy thunder and [Bobby] Hatfield’s heavenly fire,’ said the Hall, calling the song ‘magnificently produced’ and citing it as a kind of ‘symphonic pop.’ Spector’s wall-of-sound production technique on this song, said the Hall, ‘scaled unparalleled heights for a pop single.’ … It became one of the most successful pop singles of its time, despite exceeding the standard length for radio play. Indeed, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” remains one of the most played songs in radio history, estimated to have been broadcast more than 8 million times to date.” –Jack Doyle, PopHistoryDig.com

2. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”  Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Performed by the Rolling Stones (1965)

“…[A] pounding rocker with sneering vocals and lyrics, with a blues and soul base that nonetheless is used for a guitar-based song that is definitely rock, not blues or R&B. It was also one of the defining records of its era… As with many Rolling Stones songs, the key hook is the guitar riff: a fuzz-toned, insistent series of ascending and descending notes that rates among the most captivating and memorable riffs in rock history. Set against a beat suitable for foot-stomping and hand-clapping, Mick Jagger delivers the verses in a hushed, ambiguous tone that hovers between commentary and sarcastic nastiness. The group approaches the verse with a series of increasingly urgent, tense harmonizations on the words ‘and I try’ before exploding into the chorus: a cathartic release of all the frustration that has been building throughout the song, the opening fuzz riff reappearing in full force as Jagger half-screams the title (or most of it, at any rate) in a manner that compels the listener to sing-shout along… As a classic rock radio and bar band staple ever since the 1960s, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ has become part of the Western collective consciousness.” –Richie Unterberger, AllMusic.com

1. “Mack the Knife”  Written by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht (German) and Marc Blitzstein (English), Performed by Louis Armstrong & His All Stars / Bobby Darin / Ella Fitzgerald (1928)

“‘Mack the Knife’ is in a class by itself. What other jazz standard is about a man who robs, murders, rapes and commits arson? And what other jazz standard began as a German avant-garde theater song in a Marxist anti-capitalism satire? ‘Mack the Knife’ first appeared in Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), a Weimar-era musical that opened in Berlin, Germany, in 1928. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht based their script on Englishman John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, first performed in 1728 and set in London… In the original play the song ‘Mack the Knife’ was titled ‘Moritat vom Mackie Messer,’ [sic] (Moritat means murder ballad and messer means knife in German.) … [T]he all-time most popular recording of ‘Mack the Knife’ was…a 1959 version by pop singer Bobby Darin… Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife’ was strongly inspired by Armstrong, who sang of MacHeath’s crimes laughingly and with faint admiration, but Darin added an extra dollop of attitude… Blitzstein’s translation of the lyrics, an adaptation of Brecht’s original libretto that omits some of Mack’s most heinous crimes, is the version with which Americans are most familiar, but singers have continued to make the lyrics their own.” –WICN Public Radio, http://www.wicn.org

“‘Mack the Knife’ wasn’t just a chart-topping hit, one of the biggest sellers of all time, but a song that virtually all the most important vocalists in the American idiom felt impelled to perform.” –Will Friedwald, Stardust Melodies

“With its instantly familiar tune…its major alternating with minor harmonies…and its slow fox trot rhythm…’Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ became the embodiment of popular music in the first half of the twentieth century.” –James Leonard, AllMusic.com

And we’ve made it. Thank you so much for taking the journey with me. I, for one, learned a ton about these songs just by trying to dig up suitable quotations for them. Overall, I’m pleased with how it turned out, but as I said at the beginning, it could never be perfect. Even though this list was built on the idea of consensus among several pre-existent lists, certain songs crept in for which I was able to discover a good deal of seething hatred in some quarters. Perhaps the most interesting thing I found is that, as you might guess, these songs are not considered great for the same reasons. The quality of the lyrics, for example, is all over the place. But a good tune (and, sometimes, historical importance) will make up for subpar lyrical content (almost) every time. Similarly, a particular performance can sometimes take a song over the top. Recording became an essential part of music in the last century, so that’s entirely appropriate.

Well, that’s it.  I hope you enjoyed it.

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