Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Juvenile featuring Lil Wayne and Mannie Fresh, ‘Back That Azz Up’ (#478)

For most of rap’s first 25 to 30 years, different styles or innovations within the genre were closely associated with different regions.  You could hear a song, note its characteristics — everything and anything from accent to beats per minute to lyrical content — and stand a very good chance of identifying the city or scene from which it sprang, even if the artist were unknown to you.

Early rap tended to be very much a DIY sort of project, conceived from the ground up.  Its roots couldn’t have been any grassier.  It’s no accident that rap’s origins more or less coincide with the advent of (relatively) cheap and reliable ways to record work and distribute it on a local scale.

The traditional path for would-be musicians in 1979, the year the Sugar Hill Gang released ‘Rapper’s Delight’, could present serious obstacles for people of limited means…like many of the people who would eventually create and develop rap music, for instance.  Instruments were (and still are) prohibitively expensive, and even if an instrument were somehow procured, one still needed the time and the will to achieve proficiency with it, and a place to do it in.  And this is just for one individual person.  If you’ve got or want to have an entire band?

Good luck with that.

Time and space, never mind access to instruments and instruction in their use, were not things possessed in abundance (if they were possessed at all) by most young people in the Bronx circa 1980.  What they did possess in abundance — what the people they inspired would have in abundance — was the powerful human urge to create art for its own sake; to be heard on their own terms, in their own words.

And hell, you didn’t need an ensemble, or a guitar or a piano or a trumpet to create with this new art form.  If worse came to worst and you weren’t picky, you didn’t need anything but your own wits and maybe a friend to spitbox the beat.  Equipment and the technical know-how to produce sounds to go with your flow were nice, but they weren’t, strictly speaking, necessary.

Rap music’s bottom-up, hands-on model produced strong regional variations.  How could it not?  Of course overlap and cross-pollination occurred, but in general, a would-be rap artist’s peers — both competition and inspiration — were local.  The target audience was local.  The market was local.  In rap’s first decades, each metropolitan area that adapted the art form brought their own distinct regional flavor to it:  New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta…

…and New Orleans.[1]There was and still is plenty of rap going on in other countries and even other languages, but that’s a discussion for another day and another forum.

Enter native son, Terius Gray, a.k.a. Juvenile, and his goofy, exuberant Bounce hit, ‘Back That Azz Up’.  Grounded by a snaky string groove courtesy of producer Mannie Fresh, and an appearance by Cash Money label-mate Lil Wayne engaging in Lil Wayne-type shenanigans, ‘Back That Azz Up’ is both ridiculous and irrepressibly awesome.  Like dating a stripper or closing down a bar the morning before a job interview, ‘Back That Azz Up’ presents a set of questionable merits that you nevertheless can’t help but embrace.

According to The Culture Trip, the characteristics of New Orleans’ Bounce Style are as follows:  Defined by a steady tempo ranging from 95 to 105 beats per minute, heavy brass band beats, and Mardi Gras Indian chants and call-and-response routines, this indigenous music trend is part of New Orleans’ traditions and embedded in the fabric of the city’s diverse communities.

As Mannie Fresh put it in 2019, “Twenty years ago, ‘Back That Azz Up’ coming out, that was the introduction to Bounce music to the world.  A lot of people don’t know it was met with, ‘Nah, maybe the world not ready for it.’  Like, ‘We get it.  It’s New Orleans.  We get it.'”[2]

In other words, though Juvenile himself was a Bounce pioneer who’d been performing professionally since his teens (he was 24 when ‘Back That Azz Up’ was released), ‘Azz’ didn’t invent Bounce so much as it codified it and brought it to national attention.

One last note on this business of regionality:  it’s largely disappeared.  The styles still remain, of course, and they’re still taxonomically referenced with the regions from which they sprang; but new tools — SoundCloud, YouTube, etc. — have brought new perspectives and new practices…and not just for rap.  The developing ground for new sounds has largely moved from the public to the private; from clubs and stages to living rooms and studios.

Note:  The video posted here is the higher quality ‘clean’ version of the song (‘Thang’ instead of ‘Azz’, a distinction which no doubt salvaged the moral fortunes of many a wayward youth).  The women doing the backing up in the video, by the way, aren’t models but legit locals…!  Holler!

Michael Strum: “Instantly recognizeable as late 90’s rap. The strings are nicely done. I’ve always thought Cash Money was a perfect name for a record company. Mannie Fresh crushes his bars here, really top-shelf stuff from him. A 16-year old Lil Wayne adds a signature hook. Surely the best rap track ever associated with the 2020 South Carolina Democratic Primary. Juvenile, who is from NOLA, endorsed Tom Stryker for president in the 2020 election, and the two were seen dancing to ‘Back That Azz Up’ in the Palmetto State.”

Rolling Stone: In the late Nineties, Mannie Fresh’s diamond-sharp productions for Cash Money Records helped put New Orleans in the center of the hip-hop map. The title of this hit was so reminiscent of local artist DJ Jubilee’s single “Back That Thang Up” that Jubilee sued (unsuccessfully) for infringement, and the beat rode the “Triggerman” rhythm that is foundational to New Orleans bounce. Juvenile freestyled his best shit-talking bounce rhymes, and Lil Wayne shut it down with a “drop it like it’s hot” hook. As Mannie said, “[He] immediately was just like, ‘Shit, I’m getting a piece of this.’”


1 There was and still is plenty of rap going on in other countries and even other languages, but that’s a discussion for another day and another forum.
Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Santana, ‘Oye Como Va’ (#479)

For virtually the entirety of his long career, Carlos Santana has defied expectation or easy categorization.  He’s generally lumped in among the guitar gods of the classic rock pantheon, occupying an eliptical orbit somewhere between Ritchie Blackmore, say, and Michael Schenker.  He doesn’t sound like Blackmore or Schenker, you understand — Carlos Santana doesn’t sound like anyone but Carlos Santana — but in terms of his influence, he’s somewhere in that territory.

You can kind of see how Santana wound up referenced where he is in the classic rock taxonomy.  He played at Woodstock, he employed a distinctive fuzzy guitar tone, and he lived in San Francisco during a time when that city served as the home base for a number of other artists who made a cultural impact:  Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead.

But even a cursory listen to Abraxas — the 1970 album that featured ‘Oye Como Va’ and ‘Black Magic Woman’, Santana’s signature songs — derails the guitar god narrative.  Not because Carlos Santana is or was unworthy of inclusion among rock’s guitar greats, but more because his inclinations towards blues and Latin jazz took him so far afield from what any of his peers were doing.  Or to put it another way, Abraxas is a lot closer in sound and intent to something like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which came out the same year and on the same label, than to anything Janis or Paul Kantner or Jerry Garcia were doing.  If not for Woodstock and the Bill Graham[1]Bill Graham, 1931 – 1991, was an influential concert promoter, roughly analogous to a movie producer. / San Francisco connection, it’s entirely possible we’d more accurately think of Carlos Santana as a Latinized fusion jazz musician instead of a guitarist on the classic rock periphery.

The first Latin jazz great Tito Puente knew that someone had covered his 1962 song ‘Oye Como Va’ was when his wife Margaret heard the song while she was out shopping.  She recognized the song as her husband’s, but with Greg Rollie’s funky-assed organ and Santana’s distorted guitar where the horns and the flute should have been.  Definitely not anything that Tito had ever recorded, though Santana’s version is unmistakably the same song.

Tito apparently wasn’t too thrilled at first to hear of some upstart West Coast rock outfit covering his song, but time and royalty checks — Tito was given sole writing credit on the album — changed his view, wiuth Puente himself acknowledging that Carlos Santana had “put our music around the world.”

Michael Strum: “For a man I usually think of as a paragon of guitar, it’s the organ and the bass line that really stand out to me on ‘Oye Como Va’. Tito Puente’s charm is preserved, adapted, and enhanced in Santana’s rendition. A classic, a groundbreaker for Latin music, and a welcome entry here as our first non-English song, the Kanye haters notwithstanding.”

Rolling Stone: Growing up in San Francisco, Carlos Santana was shaped by the city’s psychedelic explosion. “You cannot take LSD and not find your voice,” he once claimed, “because there is nowhere to hide.” And while his early heroes were bluesmen, he changed history with this foundational Latin-rock reworking of a 1962 salsa number by Cuban percussionist Tito Puente. Santana kept the original’s cha-cha pulse but replaced its horns with Greg Rolie’s organ and Carlos’ lysergic guitar flares. Said Puente years later, “He put our music, Latin rock, around the world, man.”


1 Bill Graham, 1931 – 1991, was an influential concert promoter, roughly analogous to a movie producer.
Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Biz Markie, ‘Just a Friend’ (#480)

The late Marcel Hall, a.k.a. Biz Markie, would always insist that he wrote ‘Just a Friend’ straight, without intending it to be funny.  If he was ever bothered that people found it funny anyway, he hid it well; with typical modesty, he always said he was just happy that people liked his song, whatever their reasons.  All Biz, all the time.

Considered in the context of what was out at the time, along with what came before and what came after it, Biz Markie’s ‘Just a Friend’ starts looking and sounding like an anomaly; a quirky blip on the pop culture radar.  The song is remembered mostly for Biz’s exuberantly off-key attempt at singing the chorus, but truth is, it might be more notable for what it wasn’t — any kind harbinger of hip hop’s mainstream success or techniques — rather than what it was:  an eccentric one-off by a comic and charismatic figure.

‘Just a Friend’ was released as a single on September 26 1989, a couple weeks in advance of Biz’s second album, The Biz Never Sleeps.  Earlier that same year, gravel-voiced L.A. rapper Ton Loc put out two songs, ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Funky Cold Medina’, that reached the top ten of Billboard‘s Hot 100.  More important in terms of long-term trends that are still being utilized today were two other songs that hit the top ten that year: R&B singer Jody Watley’s ‘Friends’, which featured a rap by Eric B and Rakim, and Young MC’s ‘Bust a Move’, featuring a sang chorus by Crystal Blake.

The year before that, in 1988, Public Enemy had put out It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and on the West Coast, NWA had put out Straight Outta Compton.  Both of them were game-changers. The year after Biz Never Sleeps, in 1990 — the same year ‘Just a Friend’ reached its peak Hot 100 position on St. Patrick’s Day — Tribe Called Quest put out their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.  The very same day of the Tribe release saw Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and barely a month after that, Ice Cube’s first solo album, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.

The point is, for all its charm and sincerity — and Biz Markie had plenty of both of those qualities on offer — ‘Just a Friend’ feels like it was heading in one direction, and most of the rest of hip hop, even at that relatively early stage, heading in another.

Michael Strum: “Another iconic, sticky hook: ‘You got what I neeeed.’ A gem lyrically: ‘I whispered in her ear, Come to the picture booth / So I can ask you some questions to see if you are a hundred proof’, but also some real clunkers. I’ll stipulate some popular influence, yet I’m left wondering, ‘Why is this on here?’ Naturally, wondering ‘Who likes this?’ led to ‘Why does anyone like anything?’ Fortunately, we have Badis Khalfallah riding to the rescue: The Surprising and Scientific Reasons Why Songs Become Popular. I don’t detect lyrical and genre dissonance per se on ‘Just a Friend’, but if art’s purpose is to stimulate and inspire conversation, then Biz was on the money.”

Rolling Stone: Nobody beats the Biz (1964-2021), an impossibly good-natured DJ, rapper, producer, human beatboxer, and hip-hop personality who broke big with this ode to the friend zone off his second album. Built on a fat beat, plinking piano, and his charmingly off-key singing, “Just a Friend” interpolates Freddie Scott’s 1968 song “(You) Got What I Need” as Biz warbles about a love that will never come to pass. It was based on real life. As he told Rolling Stone in 2000, “I was talking to this girl from L.A., and every time I called her, this dude was at her house, and she’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just a friend.’ I hated that.”

Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Robert Johnson, ‘Cross Road Blues’ (#481)

It’s a little like paleontology, this business of piecing together the probable shape of Robert Johnson’s life.  What we know or can speculate about him is based on a few fragments of fossilized information unearthed long after his death, and the eyewitness accounts of those who claim to have known him.

Naturally, as befits a figure as shrouded in myth and urban legend as Robert Johnson, much of the record is buried in contradiction and the treacherous muck of suspect memory.

Here’s what we have in the way of (mostly) established fact:

He was born May 8 1911, in Hazelhurst, MS.  He lived and attended school in Memphis for a time.  He was married twice, once in 1929 to a girl named Virginia Travis who died in childbirth, and once in 1931 to a woman named Callie Craft, who died in 1933.  Johnson spent nearly all of his adulthood as an itinerant musician, traveling from place to place.

We know he was at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX at the end of November 1936, recording music for producer (and future Columbia Records country music luminary) Don Law[1]The year after Johnson’s last sessions, Law would produce Bob Wills’ signature song, ‘San Antonio Rose’, and later in his career would produce Johnny Horton’s … Continue reading in a trio of sessions.  ‘Cross Road Blues’ was recorded in the last of these sessions, on November 27 1936.  He was in Dallas, TX in June 1937 for a pair of follow-up sessions with Law.

Robert Johnson died in Greenwood, MS on August 16 1938, age 27, of unknown causes,[2]There are no fewer than three separate locations that lay claim to being the final resting place of Robert Johnson — because of course there are — and it’s entirely possible he … Continue reading leaving behind innumerable tall tales of dubious veracity, three confirmed photographs (all of which only came to light decades after his death), and the entirety of his recorded body of work:  29 songs and 13 surviving outtakes.

Beyond and between these (mostly) verifiable facts, we have the recollections of those who knew him — Son House, Robert Lockwood, Robert Shines, etc. — pointing to a personality who was intelligent, charismatic, and mercurial.  His step-sister Annye Anderson remembered ‘Brother Robert’ as well-read and a sharp dresser; a long way from the illiterate country loner of myth.  As blues scholar Elijah Wald put it, “Robert Johnson was as much the guy from Memphis, who went out into the country and was the hip city guy, as he ever was the guy from the dark Delta who went up to the cities.”

What’s not in dispute is the eclectic virtuosity displayed on Johnson’s twenty-nine recordings and their heavy influence on later generations of musicians.  Robert Johnson was, to put it bluntly, an absolutely fucking killer guitar player, and few indeed were the guitarists dedicated to their craft who heard his work and remained unmoved by it.

Eric Clapton called Johnson the most important blues singer who ever lived.  It’s hard to imagine Elmore James without Robert Johnson, and impossible to imagine the Rolling Stones (or ZZ Top or Stevie Ray Vaughan) without Elmore James.  The first time Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever laid eyes on Brian Jones was while Jones was playing ‘Dust My Broom’…a cover of Elmore James doing a cover of Robert Johnson.

Johnson’s songs, including ‘Cross Road Blues’, were collected and re-released by Columbia in 1961…just in time for any number of future British Invaders to hear it and then develop an itch to emulate it, cross-breeding its sounds and preoccupations with what they were hearing from Sun Records and Chess Records.  Bands and artists like Cream — who did their own highly stylized cover of ‘Cross Road Blues’ — the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few, would mine the resulting style for years to come.

Michael Strum: “Where to start? At the beginning (1911 in Hazlehurst, MS) How about with the numbers? 481?! Too low. We have to agree on certain things, certain basic stipulations, in order to have any kind of meaningful dialogue. The sun emits light. Objects fall to the earth if unsupported. All people are equal in the eyes of the law. Rape is wrong. If we don’t agree on these fundamental things, then we don’t share enough to have meaningful social contracts and society collapses. If we don’t agree that ‘Cross Road Blues’ is —at worst — a top-50 track, if we don’t agree that every Robert Johnson song is better than every Britney Spears or every Madonna song, then we are nowhere and careening towards oblivion. Everyone needs to listen to more Robert Johnson, and ‘Cross Road Blues’ is a wonderful place to start.”

Rolling Stone: The primal terror in the Mississippi bluesman’s voice, and his mystifying slide guitar playing, transfixed the Sixties generation of British rockers: “I could take the music only in very small measures because it was so intense,” said Eric Clapton. Recorded during a session at a San Antonio hotel room in 1936, two years before Johnson was murdered at 27, “Cross Road Blues” is a mythmaking statement of spiritual desolation and scorched-earth betrayal — even if the legend that it’s about Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his monster guitar chops is, as far as we know, apocryphal.


1 The year after Johnson’s last sessions, Law would produce Bob Wills’ signature song, ‘San Antonio Rose’, and later in his career would produce Johnny Horton’s ‘Battle of New Orleans’, Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’, and Jimmy Dean’s ‘Big Bad John’.
2 There are no fewer than three separate locations that lay claim to being the final resting place of Robert Johnson — because of course there are — and it’s entirely possible he isn’t in any of them.
Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Lady Gaga, ‘Bad Romance’ (#482)

There’s no one quite like Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.

Granted, the pop firmament abounds with artists who’ve managed to extend their creative talents across multiple fields and formats, including music, performance, movies, and fashion.  Beyonce, Donald Glover, and David Bowie — probably Lady Gaga’s closest parallel in terms of career trajectory — are just a few examples of the musicians who’ve found their way to the movies, or the actors who’ve found their way to music.

But even among those luminaries, Lady Gaga stands apart.

Part of what distinguishes her from most of her multi-talent peers isn’t what she’s done so much as how insanely successful she’s been doing it.  She’s sold millions of albums and singles while netting Academy Award nominations for acting and songwriting, all while constantly reinventing her sound and her public persona in ways that seem authentic and in keeping with her natural inclinations.  Wearing a dress made of raw beef to the MTV Awards in 2010 seemed ‘normal’ for Lady Gaga…but so did collaborating on an album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett a year later.

She’s made the transition from electronic dance music to jazz standards to other genres of music and back again…and made all of it look and sound easy.  That’s because for all the strangeness and innovation of her fashion and her eye-catching videos,[1]The ‘Bad Romance’ video was directed by Francis Lawrence, who’d go on to direct three Hunger Games movies. there’s nothing gimmicky in the least about Lady Gaga’s actual song-writing.  Scrape away the electronica from songs like ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Bad Romance’, and you’ll find sturdy, tried and true constructions of melody, rhythm, and theme.  You could reduce at least the choruses of every top ten hit Lady Gaga has ever had down to an arrangment of just voice and piano, and they’d hold up just fine.

Written while she was on tour in Norway, feeling lonely and paranoid, Lady Gaga told Grazia magazine that ‘Bad Romance’ was about “being in love with your best friend.”  Going by the song’s lyrics and its cryptic, ominous refrain —

I want your love and I want your revenge
You and me could write a bad romance

— we might hope for Gaga’s sake that she’s since upgraded her taste in friends and in men, because nothing going on in ‘Bad Romance’ sounds healthy in the least.

Hell of a song, though.

Michael Strum: I find it easy to get swept up in the electronica / house pop grandeur of ‘Bad Romance,’ particularly with the post-hoc revisionist insight provided by her crushing performance in the most recent iteration of ‘A Star Is Born.’ Her inclusive, empowering politics are a delight and make it even easier to fall in love. Sign me up!”

Rolling Stone: Shortly after Gaga had established herself as a star, she catapulted to a next level of weirdness with this Nadir “RedOne” Khayat production, which drew upon the electronic music Gaga had been inundated with while touring Europe. “I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone because I love you that much” is how she summed up the idea behind the song. Fittingly, she debuted the hit-to-be at Alexander McQueen’s show at Paris Fashion Week.


1 The ‘Bad Romance’ video was directed by Francis Lawrence, who’d go on to direct three Hunger Games movies.
Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Four Tops, ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’ (#483)

There’s no question that Motown founder Berry Gordy was talented, shrewd, daring, and industrious.  He was also lucky.  A guy in the right place at the right time, with a unique network of friends, acquaintances, and business associates.  The story of Motown is a complex game of connect the dots.

Freshly discharged from the army in 1953, Gordy comes home to Detroit, opens and closes a record store specializing in jazz records, and gets married.  By 1956, he’s working at the Lincoln Mercury plant, writing songs on the side.  His sister Gwen works at a local club, and introduces him to the club owner, a fellow named Al Green (no relation to the famous soul singer).  Al Green manages a small stable of singers and musicians, one of whom is another Detroit native, young Jackie Wilson.  Berry and Gwen and Gwen’s boyfriend, a guy named Billy Davis who has connections to Chess Records in Chicago, form a songwriting partnership, and get to work writing songs for Al Green’s stable of artists.

And they’re good at it.

The Gordys and Billy Davis write ‘Reet Petit’ and ‘To Be Loved’ for Wilson, as well as his signature hit, ‘Lonely Teardrops’, which goes Top Ten on Billboard‘s Hot 100 in 1959.  The success is nice.  The money?  Not so much.  As Smokey Robinson put it, why work for the man when you can be the man?  So that’s what Berry Gordy does, forming his own label, Motown, in April 1960.

The Four Tops, like their future label mates the Supremes, meet in the mid-50’s, right around the time Berry Gordy is hired to fasten chrome strips to cars at Lincoln Mercury.  Levi Stubbs and Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir were students at Pershing High; Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson and Lawrence Payton were from nearby Northern High.  (And let’s note, Pershing, Northern, and Cass Technical, the Supremes’ alma mater, are all less than 10 miles from one another.)  They perform at a local birthday party, like the sound, like each other, so they start getting together to practice, calling themselves the Four Aims.  By 1956, they’re signed to Chess Records, where they change their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with another vocal group, the Ames Brothers.

Remember Billy Davis?  Gwen’s boyfriend with the Chess Records connections?  He’s Lawrence Payton’s cousin.  By 1963, Billy Davis is working for Chess for full time and Berry Gordy has convinced the Four Tops to sign with Motown.  Like the Supremes, it takes the Four Tops some time to hit their stride — for Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland to figure out what to do with them — but once they hit it, they really hit it.

The follow up to ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’, which hit #11 US Pop in 1964, ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ in 1965 was the Four Tops’ first #1 hit.  It has all the Holland / Dozier / Holland hallmarks:  catchy intro, a bouncy tempo, instantly memorable sing-along lyrics, 2:45 running time.  Where it departs from the formula is Levi Stubbs’ impassioned vocals.  There are moments here where it sounds like Stubbs is singing one song, and everyone else is working on a lighter, fluffier version of the same tune.  Let off the leash, what Stubbs is doing here is maybe closer to Stax / Volt than to the usual melted butter of Motown’s male vocalists.  More Sam & Dave, say, than Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye.

The Tops themselves were not overly enamored of ‘I Can’t Help Myself’.  They thought the lyrics were dopey — all that sugar pie, honey bunch stuff — and Stubbs wasn’t happy with his performance. End of the day, though, it’s hard to argue with that #1.

Michael Strum: “Another incredible gift from the gods atop Mt. Motown. Prometheus this instance is played —again — by the trio Holland-Dozier-Holland. The Trinity of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland has given the world a great deal of joy; Dozier and B. Holland on the music and production, with E. Holland handling lyrics and vocal arrangements. Has there ever been a better songwriting team? At least anyone with a run to beat HDH 1962-1967? Obviously Lennon / McCartney comes to mind, likely 1964-1969, but despite their laudable achievements, I’d take HDH every day and twice on Sunday. There’s E. John and B. Taupin, probably 1969-1975. I’d say the real challenge is M. Jagger and K. Richards, 1967-1972. Who’s the winner? We are! ‘Sugar Pie’ has it all: the slick production, gorgeous arrangement, percussion, horns, backup vocals, heartbreak so we have our catharsis and a smile. The only issue here is that it’s ranked too low.”

Rolling Stone: One of Motown’s most rousing anthems, “I Can’t Help Myself” was inspired by songwriter Lamont Dozier’s grandfather, who’d call the women his hairdresser wife fixed up “sugar pie” and “honey bunch.” During the recording, engineer Harold Taylor recalled, “People were banging on the door of the studio; they were so ecstatic about what they heard.” Nevertheless, Levi Stubbs asked Brian Holland if he could do another take. Holland promised him they’d do it soon — and Stubbs’ first pass hit Number One.

Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Weezer, ‘Buddy Holly’ (#484)

When Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo was a kid in Connecticut, he wanted to be a rock star. 

Like, a real rock star:  fame, wealth, jet planes, legions of girls, the works.  His first band, when he was a teen-ager in the mid-80’s, was essentially a KISS cover band, minus the make-up and explosions (the band’s debut set list:  ‘Cold Gin’, ‘Rock and Roll All Night’, and ‘Strutter’). 

Cuomo spends his high school years listening to heavy metal, and moves to Los Angeles when he’s 18, but by the time he gets there, metal is phasing out, grunge and alternative is phasing in.  He gets a job at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard — because of course he does — and winds up incorporating the Beach Boys and the Beatles and Velvet Underground into his aesthetic.  Then he hears Nirvana, and something clicks.

The thing about Rivers Cuomo at this early 90’s point in his career — the thing he’ll spend the next few years realizing — is that he’s temperamentally unsuited to be a rock star.  Or, at least, he’s temperamentally unsuited to be the kind of rock star he’s always wanted to be. 

Because think about it:  how many great rock and roll songs exist because the writers and performers of those songs didn’t have the good sense not to write or perform them?  How many great rock and roll bands built their careers on unselfconsciously violating the norms of propriety and good taste?  More, how many great rock and roll bands were great in part because they unselfconsciously violated the norms of propriety and good taste?  Say what you want about KISS (or AC/DC or Aerosmith or Van Halen, et al.), but one thing they were never looking to do was agitate your intellect.

And Rivers Cuomo….you know, he’s not Paul Stanley or Steven Tyler or David Lee Roth. Cuomo’s a lot of things, but unselfconscious is not one of them. He’s too smart, too sensitive, too introspective and self-critical to ever write something like ‘Love Gun’ or ‘Detroit Rock City’ or ‘Calling Doctor Love’.  Rivers Cuomo wound up going to fucking Harvard, for fuck’s sake.  As he himself put it, “I just realized that metal wasn’t going to be a sufficient form of expression for me.  When I wrote songs, it didn’t sound like Judas Priest.  It sounded like Weezer.  I think of myself as far too wimpy to ever pull off any real metal, and Weezer is kind of like a failed attempt at being super-rock.”[1]Alternative Press Interview, 1997

‘Buddy Holly’, the compulsively toe-tapping bit of power pop that wound up being the second single released off Weezer’s self-titled debut album, very nearly didn’t make the cut.  Cuomo thought the tune was too cheesy, too gimmicky; not what he was after.  Producer Ric Ocasek — a name you may recognize from his own band, The Cars — talked Cuomo into including it.  Never mind that Buddy Holly had been dead three and a half decades before the song was written, or that Mary Tyler Moore hadn’t been on TV for nearly 20 years.

You can hear the vestiges of Cuomo’s earlier flirtations with metal in the song’s crunchy-assed guitars and bottom heavy beat, which rescues the whole affair from terminal cuteness.  Add Spike Jonze with an idea for a video set at Arnold’s Drive-In from Happy Days,[2]Jonze also directed the video for the Breeders’ ‘Cannonball’, #489 on this list. who spliced the band in with footage from the show, and a hit was born.

‘Buddy Holly’ is one of the reasons Rivers Cuomo has been a rock star for decades now.

Michael Strum: “This is an incredibly catchy and ‘sticky’ track — memorable — and well-represents the moment in music in which it was released. It shows us Weezer’s talent. Also true is that in a schema of literally infinite parallel universes, in none of them is this a better track than ‘So What’.”

Rolling Stone: Never has geek been so chic as in Weezer’s 1994 breakout single, “Buddy Holly.” Written for frontman Rivers Cuomo’s girlfriend, the poppy ode to nerdy romance was almost left off the band’s self-titled debut, also known as the Blue Album, due to Cuomo and now-ex-member Matt Sharp’s reticence. “We had the sense that it could be taken as a novelty song, and people aren’t going to take the album seriously,” Sharp told Rolling Stone. After producer Ric Ocasek heard the receptionist at the recording studio humming it, he insisted they keep it in.


1 Alternative Press Interview, 1997
2 Jonze also directed the video for the Breeders’ ‘Cannonball’, #489 on this list.
Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Azealia Banks, ‘212’ (#485)

We’ve seen how the internet and various social media platforms have empowered DIY distribution for homegrown works of music, but the exact same tools have been utilized at least as effectively for memes, videos, and the written word.

Facebook was founded in 2004.  Twitter in 2006.  Instragram in 2010.  Tik Tok in 2016.  The first generation iPhone was released in 2007.

The result of those seismic innovations means that we now live in a time in which it’s possible that every stupid or ill-advised thing a person says and does will be a matter of public record, electronically preserved for eternity or until the fiery collapse of civilization, whichever comes first.  That in turn means that most of us by now have had some first-hand practical experience with separating a given artist from their art.

The process is more easily applied to some artists than to others.  Richard Wagner may have been an anti-semitic asshole, but you only know that if you’ve done your reading; there’s nothing in Wagner’s musical output that would lead you to that conclusion.  Same with Eric Clapton, say; whatever his recent anti-vaxxer inclinations, it’s not as if he’s spent the last several decades promoting those views with his music.  Clapton appears to be undergoing some late career descent into weirdness — hell, maybe he was always weird — but there’s nothing in or about his artistic output that would specifically tell you that.

Azealia Banks and her breakout hit, the mercurial ‘212’, on the other hand…?

Whole different story.

This is a case where art and artist go together like conjoined twins.  There’s no sense whatsoever that Banks is employing some distancing narrative device (and while we’re at it, let’s note that Azealia Banks is one of the relatively rare hip hop performers who uses her real name in a professional context).

Named for her native Harlem’s area code, ‘212’ (pronounced two-one-two) exists at the funky nexus between electronic dance music and hip hop.  A tongue-twisting, dirty-talking rat-at-tat rap poured over an original track by producer Lazy Jay, it’s explicit, aggressive — even threatening — and all Azealia.

Listening to ‘212’ is like taking the uptown A train and finding yourself seated next to the horniest, brattiest, and most indiscriminately hostile alien in the galaxy, fresh off the Rick James Mothership.  By the time the last verse rolls around, Banks sounds like she’s speaking in tongues.  It’s riveting and unsettling in equal measure.  You’re not sure whether to be aroused or alarmed, and maybe that’s what Banks was after.  She’s a relentless provocateur, and the enticements offered in ‘212’ seem less about desire, pleasure, or gratification than about establishing (or demolishing) patterns of power, control, and dominance.

As of this writing, Banks is probably more (in)famous for her long list of petty, vitriolic internet and media feuds with damn near everyone on the planet than for her music, but that’s entirely in keeping with what we hear in ‘212’. 

Say what you will, but one thing no one ever has or ever will claim about Azealia Amanda Banks is that she’s afraid to speak her mind.

Michael Strum: “Ms. Banks reminds me of Pablo Picasso: the undeniable talent, the value in their voice and perspective, the at times repulsiveness of their treatment of others. This comparison must be qualified, of course, by the circumstances of their demographics. As an uninformed outside, I would hazard the guess that A. Banks has faced more discrimination and overcome more trauma as a black non-heterosexual woman than did P. Picasso as a heterosexual white man. The greater sympathy/empathy for A. Banks notwithstanding, I found this treatment of art vs. artist written about Picasso to be revealing for the creator of ‘212’. Regarding the track at hand: the lyrics are provocative and powerful, and the delivery is unique, artistic, and crisp. The skill is manifest. As is the rest.

Rolling Stone: In 2011, Azealia Banks was a teenage rapper-singer whose clear talent yielded a development deal with XL Recordings but little else. “She had been working on a collection of tracks and there was one Dutch house-sounding one that was just absolutely insane,” producer Jacques Greene recalled. Banks freestyled ferociously about her New York hometown and, uh, cunnilingus over the jittery beats of Belgian house duo’s Lazy Jay’s “Float My Boat.” Initially released in 2011 as a viral track, “212” was a hip-house banger that earned Banks a deal with Interscope and served notice that this uninhibited provocateur would not be constrained.

Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Lil Wayne, ‘A Milli’ (#486)

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., a.k.a. Lil Wayne.

He’s been a professional rap artist for the entirety of his adult life, and a highly successful rap artist at that.  He’s won five Grammy Awards (including Best Rap Solo Performance for ‘A Milli’), has sold over 20 million albums and 70 million digital tracks in the US alone, and has more entries on the Billboard Top 100 than Elvis Presley.  That’s a lot of success.

And a lot of influence.

As no less a luminary than Kendrick Lamar put it in an interview with The Coveteur:  “Lil Wayne is the greatest. Not only because of his music but also because of the culture he put behind it. It was a big part of what he was talking about, so we always hold Lil Wayne in high regards.”

If we want to consider just the influence of ‘A Milli’ in isolation, a quick YouTube search of rappers taking an informal crack at the song over producer Bangladesh’s beat will give you some idea of the scale we’re talking about here.

Lil Wayne himself is tougher to pin down, which is odd for someone who’s lived most of his life in the public light.  It’s hard to discern where Dwayne Carter the person ends and Lil Wayne the character begins.  He’s almost like a Jessica Rabbit figure:  a living, over-the-top cartoon making his animated progress through what the rest of us think of as reality.

Matt Wilhite, writing about ‘A Milli’ in a piece for DJ Booth, says the song’s verse was “chaotic, absurd, and exactly what made Lil Wayne the most thrilling emcee in the world at the time because at no point were you sure if Wayne was the smartest or the most unhinged person in the room.”

Quick story:  In the late 5th century BCE, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Athens decided they needed (or mabye just wanted) control of a nominally neutral island called Melos in the Aegean Sea.  The Athenians informed the Melians, the people who lived on the island, that they needed to surrender to Athens or suffer the consequences.  According to Greek historian Thucydides — who wasn’t there, but was alive when all this was happening — Athens didn’t bother with providing any sort of moral justification for their invasion.  So far as the Athenians were concerned, the facts were plain enough for anyone with eyes to see and acknowledge:  in effect, Athens wanted the island, and Melos wasn’t powerful enough to stop that from happening.  Thucydides famously recorded the Athenian point of view in his ‘Melian Dialogue’: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”[1]The Melians rejected the Athenian demand to surrender, and in 416 BCE the city of Melos was overrun, its male citizens put to death and its women and children sold into slavery.

Now, compare that bit of the ‘Melian Dialogue’ to a line in the last verse of ‘A Milli’:  “I do what I can, and you do what you can do about it.”  Is Lil Wayne a student of Thucydides?  Or is the line pure coincidence, with the rapper stumbling on to the literary high ground by chance?  Or maybe he just heard the line somewhere and worked it into his rap (which Wayne says was a one-take freestyle).

Who knows?  Like almost everything with Lil Wayne, the territory between intent and execution, between real and unreal, is a little fuzzy.

One can find a great many testaments from Bangladesh and Lil Wayne’s peers lauding the greatness of ‘A Milli’…but almost no comment from Lil Wayne himself, aside from an admission that he thinks it’s one of his best.

Michael Strum: “‘A Milli’ is an interesting track, one that’s very highly regarded. There’s no mistaking Wayne’s distinct flow and voice. The inclusion of Gladys Knight & The Pips as well as A Tribe Called Quest is a cool nod to musical history.

Lyrically, there’s fun with ‘I’m ill, not sick’ and there’s deep thoughts with ‘And the Bible told us every girl was sour / Don’t play in her garden and don’t smell her flower.’

Compellingly problematic, problematically compelling. Tha Carter III is a powerhouse of a true talent at the top of his game, plagued by problems endemic to the game. But it’s not his fault, in the end, for Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. is not the same as you or I; he is a Martian.”

Rolling Stone: Producer Bangladesh looped the opening chords from Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge,” then segued to a drill-like volley of trap drums. He gave the beat to his friend Shanell — a onetime R&B singer on Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment — to pass along. Wayne initially had grand plans for “A Milli”: He wanted to use the instrumental as skits for rappers like Tyga, Hurricane Chris, Corey Gunz, and Lil Mama. In the end, though, “A Milli” is just Weezy solo, blacking out in the booth and dazzling everyone who hears him.


1 The Melians rejected the Athenian demand to surrender, and in 416 BCE the city of Melos was overrun, its male citizens put to death and its women and children sold into slavery.
Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Solange, ‘Cranes in the Sky’ (#487)

Solange was 30 years old when the mournful ‘Cranes in the Sky’ was released.  Not old, by any means, but still…it’s a little startling when it hits you how rare is it to hear a modern pop or R&B song with a point of view that belongs to an actual, functioning adult.

Pop music in the social media era is itself something of a social media tributary; it’s kind of a collective timeline with a friend list full of celebrities.  The focus is on what you did, where you went, who you went with, and what it all looked like once you got there (and also who you’re sleeping with, who you’ve stopped sleeping with, and who you’d maybe like to start sleeping with).  It’s real-life events and emotion filtered through the lens of public wish fulfillment:  one part shameless self-mythologizing to two parts pure bullshit.  Reality TV set to a soundtrack.  (Important caveat:  social media did not cause or create these conditions — pop music has always skewed young and superficial — but rather refined its process and distributed its impact across multiple channels.)

‘Cranes in the Sky’, though, is after something altogether different.

Spare and sparse — damn near minimalist by modern R&B standards, punctuated by tactical stabs of piano and floating choral additions — it looks inward instead of outward, proceeding with restraint and dignity.  It tells its story simply, in direct and unambiguous language, painting a picture of loss and its leaden, echoing aftermath.  The song tells us almost nothing about the loss itself; what it was or how or why it came to be lost.  We’re told instead about what’s been left in its wake:  silence and empty rooms and moments frozen by grief and regret.  It’s a song about an oppressive, unbearable now, unrelieved by drink, sleep, sex, work, or frenetic activity.

Ask any addict:  the hard part isn’t kicking the drug.  It’s the eternity you’re facing without it that proves the real difficulty.

Michael Strum: “There’s a dreamy quality here that recalls Sigur Ros. Interesting that Solange is the first of the Knowles sisters to make an appearance; I wonder if she’ll hold on for the most-tracks-appearing crown after jumping out to an early lead. Ms. Knowles shows some major league singing chops with some Mariah-type maneuvers. I didn’t catch it the first time through, but there’s some interesting commentary here on how we all attempt to handle massive life stressors, specifically through a woman’s lens. ‘Cranes in the Sky’ has a lovely and delicate composition, with the strings evoking Japanese wagakki, particularly in the outro. Impressive that Ms. Knowles wrote it unassisted and co-produced with R. Saddio.”

Rolling Stone: In an interview with her sister Beyoncé, R&B innovator Solange Knowles described how this song was inspired, in part, by overzealous real estate development she noticed around Miami: “This idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.” She turned the metaphor inward to examine her own feelings about change, self-doubt, and aspiration, finishing the song years after it was originally conceived with producer Raphael Saadiq to create a lavish moment of neo-soul introspection.