The 50 best songs ever

Gus Van Sant said in this month’s Esquire, “I think that when you are 16 and 17 years old, you’re making the most important connections with the world that you will probably ever make in your life. If you ask a 70-year-old what his favorite song is, it’ll be a song he heard when he was 16.” That statement made me wonder, and it led to this post.

This list I’ve made isn’t what I think are the 50 greatest or most important songs of all time. There’s certainly no scientific explanation behind any of them. They’re simply the 50 songs I love the most. The music snob in me cringes a bit when I look at it, because there are songs on here I know I love only for nostalgic reasons, for situations recent or distant the song brings to mind, but the list is what the list is.

Back to Mr. Van Sant: before setting out to do this list I had assumed a disproportionate number of these songs would come from the early 90s, when I (cliche alert) had my musical awakening at the hands of Nirvana. I was 16 the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and not much older when I heard Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, who formed the triumvirate of bands who catapulted me into a whole new musical world. I could absolutely feel myself making those connections with the world to which Mr. Van Sant refers. Surprisingly enough, the latter two bands did not make this list, and I now feel like I’ve outgrown them.

The other songs on this list feel like I have not outgrown them, and never will. I like the idea of holding on to the few nostalgic connections of that early 90s era — Smashing Pumpkins, The Screaming Trees, Jane’s Addiction, and so on — while still appreciating the purpose that the afore-mentioned bands served at the time. Most important to me is that I still find new music that moves me as much as does the 70-year-old Robert Johnson song on my list. Maybe that puts the lie to Mr. Van Sant’s assumption, or maybe it just explains why I’m more passionate about music than most people I know.

Without (much) further ado, here’s the list. It is displayed alphabetically; I did manage to narrow down what I considered by ten favourites of all time, but you’ll just have to guess at those.

  1. And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead . “Mark David Chapman”
  2. Arcade Fire . “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”
  3. Beastie Boys . “Sabotage”
  4. Big Sugar . “Wild Ox Moan”
  5. Blind Melon . “Drive”
  6. Bob Dylan . “House Carpenter”
  7. Bob Mould . “Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace”
  8. Clairvoyants . “To Harm”
  9. Dandy Warhols . “Hard On For Jesus”
  10. Doors . “Break On Through”
  11. Explosions In The Sky . “Memorial”
  12. Godspeed You! Black Emperor . “Storm”
  13. Hidden Cameras . “Mississauga Goddam”
  14. Interpol . “NYC”
  15. Jane’s Addiction . “Three Days”
  16. Jeff Buckley . “Hallelujah”
  17. Led Zeppelin . “When the Levee Breaks”
  18. Mark Lanegan . “Borracho”
  19. Massive Attack . “Angel”
  20. Mates Of State . “So Many Ways”
  21. Medicine . “Time Baby III”
  22. Mogwai . “My Father My King”
  23. National . “Fake Empire”
  24. New Pornographers . “Letter from an Occupant”
  25. Nirvana . “Lounge Act”
  26. Norman Greenbaum . “Spirit In The Sky”
  27. Pink Floyd . “Wish You Were Here”
  28. Pixies . “Where Is My Mind?”
  29. Pulp . “Common People”
  30. Radiohead . “Everything in Its Right Place”
  31. Rheostatics . “Shaved Head”
  32. Robert Johnson . “Come on in My Kitchen”
  33. Rolling Stones . “Sympathy for the Devil”
  34. Screaming Trees . “Julie Paradise”
  35. Sigur Ros . “Svefn-g-englar”
  36. Sleater Kinney . “Turn It On”
  37. Smashing Pumpkins . “Drown”
  38. Smashing Pumpkins . “Rocket”
  39. Sonic Youth . “Theresa’s Sound World”
  40. Spiritualized . “Lord Can You Hear Me?”
  41. Spoon . “Jonathon Fisk”
  42. Sugar . “And You Tell Me (tv mix)”
  43. Thermals . “Here’s Your Future”
  44. Tindersticks . “4:48 Psychosis”
  45. Tragically Hip . “Fifty-Mission Cap”
  46. U2 . “Jesus Christ”
  47. Walkmen . “The Rat”
  48. White Stripes . “Ball And A Biscuit”
  49. Yeah Yeah Yeahs . “Modern Romance”
  50. Yume Bitsu . “The Frigid, Frigid, Frigid Body of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg”

Things I find interesting about this list, now that I look at it:

  • Only one band — Smashing Pumpkins — appeared twice, unless you count the Mark Lanegan/Screaming Trees combo. I actually wonder now if I subconsciously self-censored, trying to limit myself to one song per artist for the most part.
  • There are some very long songs on there, notably Jane’s Addiction (10:48), Yume Bitsu (18:29), Mogwai (20:12) and GY!BE (22:32). I like me some long songs, and there were several more in the 171-song ‘short’ list which fed this one.
  • There are two covers on there: the U2 cover of a Woody Guthrie song and Jeff Buckley‘s version of a Leonard Cohen song. Obviously I consider both superior to the original, or to subsequent covers. Bob Dylan‘s “House Carpenter” is an interpretation of an old tune, but so is most folk, so I didn’t consider it a cover.
  • Creating this list was fun, but kind of felt like work too. But fun work.

UPDATE: upon further reflection, I made some changes to the list. In are Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s “Storm”, Bob Dylan‘s “House Carpenter”, Beastie Boys‘ “Sabotage” and Spiritualized‘s “Lord Can You Hear Me”. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan‘s “Desolation Row”, The Constantines‘ “Hyacinth”, Fiery Furnaces‘ “We Got Back the Plague” and Radiohead‘s “The National Anthem” are out. All great songs, obviously, but probably shouldn’t have made the final list in retrospect.

FURTHER UPDATE: it is unconscionable that “Ball And A Biscuit” by The White Stripes was not on this list. It has replaced “Save Me” be Tea Party.

19 responses to “The 50 best songs ever

  1. Hi Dan,
    Your list really lays out the generation gap for me. I have made my living as a full-time professional musician for thirty-five years now and, I can hardly believe it, I don’t know, can not recall ever having heard, any of your top 50. Not one! I know about 400 songs by heart, have 1000 more in my wotkbooks, but not one that is on your list.

    This is not a putdown, your writing is intelligent and I assume you are a good representative of the listening public of today. It just tells me why I am not a star.

  2. @Bob,

    Thanks for your comment. I must correct you though: I would make a very *poor* representative of the listening public today. Most people listen to easy, formulaic rubbish (what my father would call ‘sawdust’ music…it’s just filler) and have never heard the music I listen to. I know people far ‘indie’-er than myself, but I’m far from mainstream.

    Anyway, I’m not sure I believe you. How can you be from the UK and not have heard “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones?!? 🙂

  3. I’ve got a similar playlist on my iPod (“Songs I’ll listen to forever”) that I’ve been thinking about cultivating a blog post from.

    Interestingly, there is virtually nothing on that playlist from that 16-17 age period. In fact, I can barely even tell you what I listened to in high school. Everything on my list is either music I listened to as a child with my father (i.e. Johnny Cash), or artists from the past 8-10 years.

  4. You got me, I have heard quite a bit of Rolling Stones music but I only remember the titles of a few and not that one. Have you seen the Imax films of the Rolling Stones concerts? Fantastic.

  5. @Bob … you must be ‘young’ to not know Sympathy – a classic.

    @Dan ..That aside although I am challenged by 30% of the names on the list, I know most of the names. Nice list that I will use. Nice to see Doors and Floyd. Must do similar list.

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  9. I was thinking tonight about the comment you made about self-censoring, and wondering if that’s the reason why there are so few repeated artists on your list (which was also true of my list and our dad’s).

    I think it’s because we’ve not really answered the question, “What are our 50 favourite songs ever?” We have actually responded to the directive, “Create the best playlist you can with 50 songs in it”, which is the same as, “If you could only listen to 50 songs for the rest of your life what would they be?” It’s a subtly different question, but explains why we automatically put a bit of variety in there.

  10. By the way, I’m already annoyed at myself for having left off the likes of “Sabotage” by The Beastie Boys, “House Carpenter” by Bob Dylan, the first half of “Storm” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Lord Can You Hear Me” by Spiritualized, “She Sells Sanctuary” by The Cult and Danger Mouse’s mashup of “99 Problems” and “Helter Skelter”.

  11. Stop reading my list!

    Know what’s annoying? I can no longer listen to the first few bars of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” without hearing

    There’s never been a nigga this good for this long…

    in my head.

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