10//What Goes On – Velvet Underground
I could have chosen many Velvet Underground songs, such is the quality of what little material they produced, but I picked this because it has everything I love about them in packed into 5 minutes – A proto-krautrock beat, guitars beyond description, assorted instrumental oddities and Lou Reed ‘singing’ dreamily in a language of somehow reassuring ambiguities. If there’s any one song here that’s carried onto the list by one element then it’s What Goes On and that guitar. It’s so simple but I think it might just be my favourite riff ever. Something about it just whips along but at the same time is packed with texture. It’s really good, basically.
9//This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) – Talking Heads
Much like What Goes On, the simplicity of This Must be the Place belies just how absurdly brilliant it is. It’s suffixed by Naïve Melody since it’s essentially the same tune over and over again for all 5 minutes. It’s simple, pretty and, fittingly, endearingly heartfelt in its naivety. It’s just a simple guitar lick, some keyboards and David Byrne singing what amounts to his first true love song. As usual, the lyrics are universally brilliant – the line ‘You got a face with a view’ in particular is just magic, though I have no idea why I like it so much. I have no idea why I like this whole song so much. It’s not pushing boundaries, it’s not experimenting, it’s just pleasant. Also, David Byrne’s hoot towards the end is absolute perfection.
8//Soon – My Bloody Valentine
This song, and the whole album Loveless in general, listened to alone in a darkened room at full volume is nothing short of transcendental. That first shuddering landslide of distorted guitar that smashes through the trip-hop opening is about as close as a song can get to crossing over the senses into something you literally feel. I debated for some time between this and Sometimes but eventually decided that, whilst Sometimes is the more emotional and sensitive song, Soon just sounds better. To Here Knows When weighed in pretty heavily on that count too, although the sheer strangeness of Soon’s dance-vibe ultimately won out there too.
7//Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys
I’m not sure what there is to say about this song that hasn’t been said before – it’s essentially perfect. It’s fun, weird, feel-good and knows when to stop – like all Beach Boys songs. The theremin in this is a Beach Boys staple that has really never sounded better, especially during the mid-song breakdown which must rank as among the finest bridges in music history – it’s simply beyond words, all you can do is shut up and enjoy it.
6//Mother Sky – Can
Instrumentally this is probably the greatest song ever made. Everything, from the screeching guitar that opens it, to Damo Suzuki’s trademark weird chant-like vocals, and especially the absolutely ridiculous drums, is complete perfection. The drums in particular are just the finest use of percussion in any song ever. That drum solo about halfway through is just unreal. A sprawling, chaotic mess of a song, it’s almost impossible to attempt to describe it to someone. It’s just madness, pure madness. And with a sprinkle of utter genius here and there too. The single greatest jam session ever put to record.
5//The End – The Doors
Jim Morrison – hilariously overdramatic, incredibly pretentious, appalling poet and serious genius. Listen to The Doors live and you’ll see that their frontman was a mixed bag to end all jumbled containers. He’d mix incredible stage presence and magnetic appeal with unthinkably terrible spoken word sections and a fondness for controversy that usually ended with him naked and thrown out, or just thrown out whilst babbling about how he was a lizard or something. The End is perhaps the archetypal Doors song then, a masterpiece that’s undeniably pretentious and seriously controversial thanks to its famed Oedipal section, but one that hinges on Morrison’s performance and presence. But, what makes The End stand out is how, even if you ignore Jim, the rest of the song holds its own. The drumming dances across the cymbals with unparalled precision and grace, the guitar sweeps in at just the right moments with those distinctly Doors tones and the keyboard is as magnificent as always. Perhaps most impressive is that incredible, intoxicating atmosphere created – that morbid, funereal effect that turns the song into something approaching a requiem, replete with dramatic organs, that transforms what could have been overblown from Morrison into something truly incredible. It’s sweeping, ambitious and just misses out on being a melodramatic, pretentious piece of spoken word crap.
4//Cosmic Dancer – Marc Bolan & T.Rex
There’s something about Cosmic Dancer, a strange balance between up and down tempo, that no other song has ever seemed to capture. Whenever I listen to it I always get an impulse to listen to something similarly propulsive yet beautiful. I usually end up just listening to it again; nothing else ever satisfies. The strings may hold the key to that difference – they’re so farcically pretty that they turn glam rock into something truly incredible. They lend a drama and poignancy that just uplifts everything else, beautifies it. Marc Bolan’s normally sensual vocals become a haunting, pained, strangely deflated plea and duelling guitars become strangely transfixing in an indescribably tragic kind of way. I don’t know why the song sounds so tragic when it’s really just about dancing, but it really is. It’s nostalgic, beautiful and simultaneously makes me incredibly sad and incredibly happy, almost proud, in a weird kind of way. This may well be the first true dream pop song, and it perfected dreamy in one go.
3//In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel
If Cosmic Dancer makes me happy and sad in a strange kind of way, then I don’t even know what In the Aeroplane Over the Sea does to me. It’s at once incredibly depressing and infinitely uplifting. It’s the saddest kind of hope I’ve ever heard. Jeff Mangum can’t hold his own with the other vocalists on this list so he has to get by on lyrics, which means it’s a good thing then that his are pretty much universally brilliant in a weird, strange, yet touching and deeply moving way. Throw in that weird, wailing kind of sound from an instrument I don’t even know, an easy-listening guitar that drives everything along, and you have a plaintive, yet never dull combination. Endlessly strange, yet ultimately moving, the line ‘For now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see (though I always mis-hear it as ‘be’ and kind of prefer it now)’ is quite possibly my favourite ever, from any song.
2//Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys
Mike Love needs to be taken out and beaten to a pulp to the sound of SMiLE so he can see how hopelessly, hopelessly wrong he was about it. His criticism crushed Brian Wilson and meant we never heard the album in its original form for over 40 years. That meant we never got to hear Surf’s Up, which, from two minutes on, is literally the greatest thing ever recorded. Seriously. That’s not even slight hyperbole. It’s just the most beautiful thing ever in the history of the world ever. Those harmonies are proof that there is a God and he operates entirely through the vocal cords of 4 Californians. That section is the most incredible, redemptive, inspiring thing I’ve ever heard; which makes it weird that it’s second. Who could possibly top that?
1//God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
Oh, more Beach Boys, obviously. No favouritism here or anything, not like a third of my top 10 is one band and I had to force myself to remove another for the sake of making it more interesting (the one I ditched was Don’t Talk and, listening to it now, it absolutely kills me that I had to do it). Still, if the winner was always going to be The Beach Boys, then everyone knows what the winner was always going to be. Elvis Costello claimed that the string section was proof that Angels exist, Paul McCartney wept to it, and Brian Wilson felt uncomfortable that it opened on such a downer. For once I disagree with him, it’s central to God Only Knows, the greatest tribute to broken romance ever. Oh, and it’s the all-round best song ever too. It’s perfect. In every way. There is literally not a single flaw with this song. Every single second is perfection. That bit, towards the end, where they all join in and harmonise the refrain? Jesus, that’s just insane. I could listen to this song a thousand times in a row and never get tired of it. Surf’s Up may lay claim to the prettiest section in music, but God Only Knows is deliriously wonderful the whole time. In under three minutes The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and his ‘pocket orchestra’ complete music. It’s done, you can go home now, this is it. You can’t beat it. Don’t even bother.