Favorite Songs By Year
It would be impossible for me to rank my favorite songs of all time. Unlike books and film, my feelings for music are in constant flux. Today I like The Walkmen, and all their songs are my favorites; tomorrow that will be true of Peter Gabriel. But here's a more manageable task: coming up with a favorite song of the year, going back about 40 years. I could go back as far as 1975. Beyond that point lie periods of music not generally appealing to me. I was born in the late '60s, and came of age in the '80s -- a faddish decade for music. But if you knew where to look, there was good alternative, and of course the omnipresent voices of U2 and Peter Gabriel. The '90s I associate with Radiohead most of all, and for me the past decade was ruled by The Walkmen. In recent years I find myself leaning increasingly to obscure bands, and I suspect when this decade has had its say, my favorites will be songs virtually no one has heard. (Witness my entry for the year 2013.) Enjoy the list. 75: Welcome to the Machine, Pink Floyd. Three bands were responsible for broadening my musical horizons in the awful decade of the '80s. Not surprisingly, they were bands who shined during the '70s: Genesis, Rush, and Pink Floyd. Welcome to the Machine was among the first songs that showed me the true potential of music. 76: Dance on a Volcano, Genesis. Many great bands sell out at some point, but none so appallingly as Genesis. Their '70s music remains some of the best progressive rock ever recorded; in the '80s they deteriorated into top-40 sewage , and by the '90s they were even in the realm of the elevator. "Dance on a Volcano" is genius. 77: Heroes, David Bowie. This was the "tunnel song" in the film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower, replacing Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" from the book. Which is interesting, because I almost chose a Fleetwood Mac song for this year ("The Chain"). But it has to be "Heroes". 78: Deep in the Motherlode, Genesis. Like U2's "Drowning Man" (see the 1983 entry), this song faded into tragic obscurity, and was never performed live after the '70s. It's about a guy traveling west during the Nevada gold rush, and has an epic sweep seldom captured in five-minute songs. 79: In the Flesh, Pink Floyd. It's impossible to disassociate this song from the warped fascist rally portrayed in the film. There are other songs hailed by Floyd-fans as The Wall's best ("Another Brick in the Wall", "Mother", "Comfortably Numb"), but... "if I had my way, I'd have all of them shot!" 80: Spirit of the Radio, Rush. It's ironic that this was the first song of the '80s: Rush's album was released on Jan 1, 1980, and "Spirit of the Radio" is the first track. Ironic, because the song is more a looking back -- encapsulating everything good about the '70s -- rather than looking forward to the abysmal '80s. 81: A Promise, Echo and the Bunnymen. Before their mainstream success in the mid-'80s came cult classics like this one. Forget the dancing horses, this is when Echo was really good. 82: Wallflower, Peter Gabriel. Most would claim "Rhythm of the Heat", "San Jacinto", or "Shock the Monkey" as the best song from Security, but as excellent as those are, they don't beat the underrated "Wallflower". It's about the torture of Latin American political prisoners, but as always with Peter Gabriel, completely transcends politics. 83: Drowning Man, U2. "New Year's Day" made them popular, and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" marked them as pacifist revolutionaries. But "Drowning Man" is the real gem from War. It's devoid of percussion, heavy on bass, and delivers the most haunting use of an electric violin I've ever heard. To this day, U2 haven't performed it live since the '83 tour, which makes no sense at all. 84: Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?, The Alarm. These guys opened for some of U2's concerts, and in some ways are a Welsh version of U2. Hilariously, they were called The Toilets in their early punk years. 85: She Sells Sanctuary, The Cult. I lost count of all the remixes; the original version is still the best. The Cult's music was a bastardization of so many forms -- post-punk goth, heavy metal, Zeppelinesque guitar -- and it worked wonders. 86: There is a Light That Never Goes Out, The Smiths. I agree with those who claim that The Smiths were the most important indie band of the '80s. Songs like "Panic", "Ask", and "Shoplifters of the World Unite" showed them doing things completely on their own terms, and this song is their very best. Who would guess that lyrics like this could sound so graceful: "And if a ten-ton truck/ killed the both of us/ to die by your side/ it's such a heavenly way to die." 87: Never Let Me Down Again, Depeche Mode. For whatever insane reason, this song didn't catch on much in America (the Germans loved it). During my freshman year at college, someone on my dorm floor played Depeche Mode relentlessly. I think I was the only one who didn't mind, and I became obsessed with "Never Let Me Down Again". 88: Beyond the Pale, The Mission UK. Thus began my love affair with gothic rock. The lead singer's voice is goth legacy. 89: Worlock, Skinny Puppy. They're an acquired taste, but I've found that even the most shallow top-40 listener will confess to liking "Worlock", which takes brutal synths and rasping vocals and slowly morphs them into a lush melody. This is Skinny Puppy's masterpiece. 90: Put the Message in the Box, World Party. In my final year as an undergrad, I was (re-)expanding my horizons beyond gloomy, depressing-sounding goth music, and was delighted to discover the obscure band known as World Party. This song you can listen to over and over again. 91: Ultraviolet, U2. The stated intent of Achtung Baby, as Bono tells it, was to "burn down The Joshua Tree" and do something entirely new. The result was a masterpiece. Everyone loves "The Fly", "Mysterious Ways", and "One" -- but "Ultraviolet" is my personal favorite. 92: Secret World, Peter Gabriel. Us was released during my Peace Corps stint, and a friend mailed me the audio-cassette which I listened to on my cheap battery-powered Walkman (it's hard remembering the days before ipods). Lesotho was very much my own secret world, and this song resonated on many levels. It's one of three Peter Gabriel tracks to make this list, and probably my very favorite. 93: Disarm, The Smashing Pumpkins. It's amazing how controversial this song was when released, and the hidden messages it was thought to contain. In any case, it's the Smashing Pumpkins' best song, and the video (which I linked to) is fantastic. 94: Ode to My Family, The Cranberries. This could well be my favorite song of all time. I never tire of it, no matter how many times played, and no matter when. I don't think there's another song I can say that about. "Ode to My Family" is pretty much the purest song I know. 95: No More I Love You's, Annie Lennox. A cover of the Lover Speaks song from 1986, and vastly superior to that original. Annie Lennox is a gift from the gods. 96: Don't Let It Bring You Down, Annie Lennox. I'm not sure what happened in 1996, but it's the one year I can't come up with a suitably favorite song, so I'm drawing on Lennox's Medusa album again, especially since some of its singles were released in '96 anyway. This is a cover of Neil Young's cherished classic from 1970, and beautifully done. 97: No Surprises, Radiohead. This band was a game-changer in the '90s. I think of them as I think of Pink Floyd in the '70s, U2 in the '80s, and The Walkmen in the '00s, each effortlessly dominating a decade with true uniqueness. (Each has a song that is idolized: "Another Brick in the Wall", "Where the Streets Have No Name", "Creep", and "The Rat".) In the case of Radiohead, their music seemed to come out of a new dimension. "No Surprises" is a special one for me. 98: Every You Every Me, Placebo. Thus began my love affair with Placebo. I couldn't decide between this song and "Pure Morning", so I flipped a coin. 99: Take a Picture, Filter. There's an embarrassing story to this one, involving me dancing, trying to get cute, and sending both me and my partner sprawling on our asses. Even so, it remained my favorite of '99. 00: Kite, U2. After two miserable teen-pleasing albums (Zooropa and Pop), I thought U2 was dried up. It was a beautiful day indeed when I finally got around to buying All That You Can't Leave Behind -- fully expecting the worst, and getting gobsmacked with music as good as their early stuff. "Kite" is the crown jewel. 01: The Breaking of the Fellowship, Howard Shore. The Lord of the Rings films were my universe in the first years of the new millennium, and Howard Shore's symphony orchestra was so much of that cinematic experience. I think I've listened to this particular track as often as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Bach's Air in C. In the movie it plays over Frodo making the painful decision to abandon the fellowship, Sam chasing after him in the boat, and the final frame as they gaze out over Mordor. 02: Growing Up, Peter Gabriel. As much as Peter Gabriel evolves, his music is always timeless. He's the Stanley Kubrick of music making. For that matter, he's the Kubrick of music videos, and this video is as good as the song. 03: The Grey Havens, Howard Shore. Ditto for what I said about "The Breaking of the Fellowship". It seems almost a crime to play this piece without watching the sacred scene, so I use the actual movie clip. 04: The Rat, The Walkmen. I'll grant this song is over-worshiped, but it is my favorite of '04, and it's easy to understand why the band chooses to end all their concerts with it. 05: All These Things That I've Done, The Killers. Considered by many music critics to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time, and for good reason. It is. 06: Hands Across the Ocean (Palmer Version), The Mission UK. The original 1990 version is too radio-friendly. This remake is almost an entirely different song, much better, and an absolute earworm. 07: Your Arms Around Me, Jens Lekman. It's impossible for me to hear this song without seeing Ellen Page do underwater-strip tricks, so that's the video-clip I use, from the movie Whip It. Lekman is a Swedish indie singer of compulsive, addicting ballads. 08: In the New Year, The Walkmen. Songs like this come once in a blue moon. It's the Walkmen's best song to date, and taps the same plane of power attained by Rush's "Spirit of the Radio". 09: Skeletons: Original & Acoustic, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The original song is ethereally transcendent; the acoustic version pure as it is simple. It's impossible to choose between the two, and I defy you to try. 10: Mountain Lions, Old Abram Brown. I used to work with the lead singer at my library, and that's how I learned about his indie rock band. Their Restless Ghosts album deserves way more attention; I've played it repetitively. "Mountain Lions" is my song of choice. 11: Paradise, Coldplay. These guys get a lot of flak, and frankly they deserve it. Songs like "Yellow" make my piles fester. But "Paradise" is the rare crowd-pleaser that's honest-to-God perfect. 12: Battle Born, The Killers. For me, this one ties with "Miss Atomic Bomb", and since everyone adores the latter, I'm going with the former. It's the expansive final track on an album with blazing ambition, and succeeds smashingly. 13: Beatrice, Yield & Into the West, Tan Vampires. I choose two favorite songs from 2013, for two reasons. First so I can get 40 songs instead of 39 on this list. Second because they're obscure and thus all the more reason to promote them. The guitarist who calls himself Yield is actually biblical scholar Zeba Crook (who would have thought?), and Tan Vampires have been mucking about with Old Abram Brown (see the 2010 entry) with whom they share certain commonalities. Great songs both.