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 Greatest 500 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 Greatest 500 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 Greatest 500 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.

Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Weeknd, ‘House of Balloons’ (#488)

Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, was born and raised in Toronto, the son of Ethiopian immigrants.  Brought up by his mother and grandmother, Abel’s family attended the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and something about that experience seems to have permanently lodged itself in The Weeknd’s personal and artistic worldview:

As God made it, the world was very good.  But evil came there in it.  God who made the world is ever concerned and active to save it from the clutches of evil and restore it to the destiny for which it has been created. — ‘The Mystery of the Incarnation

Prefiguring Montrero Hill’s model of internet distribution by about a decade, Tesfaye put his first music out anonymously, on YouTube.  In 2011, he and some partners created a record label, XO, and he put out a series of what he called ‘mixtapes’, releasing them on the XO website.

‘House of Balloons’ is the title track of the first of these mixtapes.  ‘Balloons’ borrows heavily from both the sound and theme of Siouxie and the Banshees’ ‘Happy House’, but with none of the earlier song’s sardonic distance from its subject.  Siouxie may have been able to pretend all’s well and that there is no Hell, but by the time we get to ‘Balloons’, that pretense has vanished in an obliterating fog of timeless days and writhing bodies and chemical misadventure.  The Weeknd, with his high, exotic voice, navigates this territory — Circle 2.5 in Dante’s Inferno, somewhere between Lust and Gluttony — as both participant and observer.

God who created the world made man as the crown of creation.  Made in God’s image and endowed with creaturely freedom and autonomy, man seeks God and reflects on His being and nature.  Through the wrong exercise of mans’ free will there came on him and the world at large misery and suffering as well as sin and evil.  The salvation of the world, therefore, required pre-eminently the healing of man. — ‘The Mystery of the Incarnation

Let’s grant that this redemptive aspect is not to be found in ‘House of Balloons’, but taken in context with the rest of Tesfaye’s output, with some squinting and a bit of imagination, one might be able to make out the beginning of something in ‘Balloons’ — a sort of self-awareness, at least — that looks like light at the end of tunnel.

Michael Strum: “I can’t figure out what House of Balloons‘ title track is supposed to be, which I think is part of its charm. It’s very current — very woke — to smash genre-based labels and mix-and-match boldly. There’s much to admire on House of Balloons,. though I think the title track isn’t the shiniest light here. The imagery on ‘The Morning’ hits home, and ‘Glass Table Girls’ has some interesting ideas thematically. ‘Wicked Games’ is intriguing stylistically. There’s real talent here, and much to enjoy. I can’t stop myself from adding that it belongs nowhere ‘So What’, and it being ranked ahead hurts my brain.”

Rolling Stone: Far from the international superstar he’d become, Toronto singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye didn’t even send out photos or do any interviews when he released the first Weeknd album. “The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it,” he said. “No one could find pictures of me. It reminded me of some villain shit.” But the title track of House of Balloons nevertheless set the course for his career, both thematically — drugs and sex, meet depression — and musically, with its sample of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” announcing a new direction for R&B.

Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Lil Nas X, ‘Old Town Road’ (#490)

The list of 500 Greatest Songs we’re working from was updated by Rolling Stone this very year, in 2021.  To this point in our progress, #500 through #490, the song selection spans 60 years.  Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ (#493), from 1959, is the oldest song, while this entry, ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X is the most recent, from 2019.

Over the course of these 60 years, we’ve seen fundamental paradigm shifts in popular music that have had profound effects not just on the way music is conceived and recorded, but also in the way that it’s distributed and received.

The first of these major shifts, of course, was video.  Music videos aren’t solely responsible for the performative visual aspects of pop music — people were mixing performance art with music long before video made the scene — but there’s no question that video has helped push the visual element to the forefront.  It’s the rare hit song released after 1982 that’s not associated with a professionally directed music video.  You don’t think of one without the other.  Try to imagine Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, or Eminem’s ‘The Real Slim Shady’ without their attendant videos.  The resulting pop firmament suddenly looks like a vastly different place.

The second major shift, the metaphoric earthquake that’s currently roiling the landscape, has been the advent of internet and social media:  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tik Tok, Instagram, Vine, etc.  These tools have allowed savvy cybernauts and aggressive social networkers to create, market, and distribute their own material, cheaply and effectively.

That’s exactly what happened with Montrero Hill, a.k.a. Lil Nas X, a charismatic young internet personality who did a little of everything across various platforms and formats before buying an online sample of a Nine Inch Nails song for $30 and writing ‘Old Town Road’ around it.  He released the song in December 2018, and made online memes to promote it.  Users — lots of users, fucking tens of millions of users — took notice, and began making and sharing short-form videos with the song on Tik Tok.

Feeling old yet?

‘Old Town Road’ was popular enough to debut in the Billboard Hot 100 (eventually reaching #1, where it enjoyed a long tenure).  Billy Ray Cyrus heard it, and contributed to a new mix (the original version was less than two minutes in length).  Lil Nas X was signed to Colombia Records.

Before Cyrus’ involvement, the song also hit the country charts…and we’re not talking scraping the bottom of the country charts either.  It hit #19 country.  And then it was removed from those charts in March 2019 by Billboard, who issued this statement:

“Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Uh huh.

Let’s do this.  Call it the Yeehaw Challenge, Pt. 2.  Go listen to Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Meant to Be’ — #3 on the country charts the week ‘Old Town Road’ was removed — then try identifying exactly which elements of today’s country music are being embraced in that song but are absent in ‘Old Town Road’.

We’ll wait.

Michael Strum: “‘Old Town Road’ makes me feel light, warm, all-encompassing joy. Who needs meth when you’ve got Lil Nas X? I love the timber of his voice, his flow, his accent (‘matt-ee!’), the mix. I love the boldness to mix genres. I love and am inspired by his Pride. I love seeing black input in country again, in the tradition of Ray Charles’ ‘Modern Sounds in Country Music’ (1962). Langston Hughes called out for us to Let America Be America, and Mr. Hill answers the bell ably: wake up on your sister’s couch, find a track, rap about a cowboy hat from Gucci, and break American pop music. That’s a rags to riches story that would make H. Alger blush! A rock and roll story and a great choice here.”

Rolling Stone: Montero Hill was an Atlanta college dropout sleeping on his sister’s couch and looking to break into music when he came across a track he liked by a Dutch 19-year-old called YoungKio that was based around a banjo sample from a Nine Inch Nails track. “I was picturing, like, a loner cowboy runaway,” he told Rolling Stone. Within a year “Old Town Road” was the longest-running Number One song of all time, seeming to sum up eons of American cross-cultural love and theft in just one minute and 53 seconds.

Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Guns ‘n Roses, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ (#491)

Oh my God.

Buried in the mix roughly seven seconds into ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, those are the first words we hear on Guns n’ Roses’ bleak and brilliant Appetite for Destruction.  A reflexive gasp of shock, horror, and moral revulsion, it serves as a kind of mission statement for the snarling catalog of human failure and near-unremitting darkness that follows.  Appetite is a Chandleresque vision of the City of Angels set to Hell’s own soundtrack: a victim-on-victim freakshow chock full to the brim with junkies, hustlers, porno hounds, and lost, lonely souls.

All five of the band’s members — singer W. Axl Rose, guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler — are credited as writers on ‘Jungle’, but the moral viewpoint is that of Rose and Stradlin, Indiana natives and boyhood friends.  You can take the boys out of the Midwest, apparently, but taking the Midwest out of the boys might be another task altogether.  You get the sense that Hollywood, CA might’ve come as something of a shock after Lafayette, IN (though both Rose and Stradlin had lived in LA for years by the time ‘Jungle’ was written).

That the album even has a viewpoint, moral or otherwise, is the first of many qualities that sets Appetite apart.  The popular hard rock of the era, largely dictated by music videos, was characterized by a sort of slummer’s glam:  big hair, gaudy outfits, and bloated, radio-friendly production.  Art, even by the lax standards of pop music, took a back-seat to image.

The same year Appetite came out, 1987, saw releases by popular hard rock acts like Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Faster Pussycat, and Whitesnake…and compared to those offerings, Appetite might as well have been conceived and recorded in some alternate dimension.  Whatever excesses GnR’s contemporaries might have been getting up to off-stage, their actual output — both visual and sonic — was safe and inoffensive as mother’s milk, and shallow as a kiddie pool.  Music that had the pretense of social insurrection with little of its bite and none of its cost.

And then, suddenly, there was ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’

Saying it was startling doesn’t do it justice.  It was lean and mean, nasty and exhilarating and even a little scary.  There was nothing remotely polite or appropriate about it.  (Seriously, it doesn’t matter what volume you listen to ‘Jungle’ on; it always sounds loud.  It’s a song that means business.)  Even the way the band looked — toxic and unhealthy, cloaked in a grimy venereal sheen — was different.  Balanced against the pabulum you were used to, it was a little like getting splashed with a bracing faceful of cold gasoline…

….and then being lit the fuck on fire.

Michael Strum: “‘Welcome to the Jungle’ sounds like five young, musically-inclined, adrenaline-ridden white guys trying to write a theme song for Roach, the echo-locating grenadier at the Do Long bridge in ‘Apocalypse Now’. Unformed, undifferentiated wildness permeates, providing uneasy energy. Another sticky title here, perhaps a victim of its own success as a cultural touchstone now crossed over into hackneyed trope. Creeping determinism, or hindsight bias, remind us to appreciate the creativity present in ‘Jungle’, to recall the world before it existed and became iconic and played out. The perceived inevitability lies not in a lack of creativity by GnR, but in ourselves, dear Brutus, in another of our all-too-human cognitive errors. The internet was right about how to enjoy ‘Welcome to the Jungle’; ignore the singing and focus on the eclectically-influenced musical construction, and good things await.”

Rolling Stone: Released as the first single from Appetite for Destruction, “Welcome to the Jungle” stiffed at first — it took the massive crossover success of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” to ready radio for GN’R at their most unvarnished. The song’s inspiration, according to Axl Rose, was a hitchhiking trip that landed him in the Bronx, where a stranger approached him and said, “You know were you are? You’re gonna die, you’re in the jungle, baby!” Rose took this mockery and turned it into an anthem.

Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (#492)

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the album from which ‘So What’ is taken, is perhaps the best selling jazz album of all time.  If you’ve only ever heard one or two jazz songs in your life, chances are good that one of them is ‘So What’ (and the other one is probably ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck).  As of 2019, Kind of Blue had sold over five million copies, making it one of the very few instances in your lifetime of a conspicuous overlap between high art and popular culture.

And make no mistake, when we invoke art in connection with what the Miles Davis Quintet are doing on Kind of Blue…?  We’re talking Art with a capital ‘A’.  Ars gratia artis:  pushing the envelope of what has and can be done, delivering a type of music from embryonic conception into full-blown reality.

A composer and musical theorist named George Russell developed what he called the ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization’ in 1953.  Each of the songs on Kind of Blue (1959) and its predecessor Milestones (1958) are an experiment, more or less, in Russell’s theory of modality:

The term ‘modal jazz’ refers to improvisational music that is organized in a scalar (‘horizontal’) way rather than in a chordal (‘vertical’) manner. By de-emphasizing the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means: melody, rhythm, timbre, and emotion. A modal piece will generally use chords, but the chords will be more or less derived from the prevailing mode.” — Peter Spitzer, ‘Modal Jazz

Did you catch all that?  That’s the simple version.

No disrespect to any of the other entrants, but discovering Davis and his Kind of Blue collaborators on this Rolling Stone list — shoe-horned in among modern hip-hoppers, 80’s pop stars, and 70’s soft rock icons — is a little like attending a middle school science fair and finding a working cold fusion engine amidst the volcano, tidal wave, and dinosaur bone exhibits.

Why has Kind of Blue and ‘So What’ endured over the decades as both entry point for neophytes and accepted classic for connoisseurs?

Well, for starters, the members of the Miles Davis Quintet that you’re hearing were literally some of the best musicians on the planet.[1]And if any of them were alive today, they’d still be perhaps the best musicians on the planet.  Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums)…if they were a sports team, they’d all be first ballot Hall of Famers.  Each and every one of them looms large in the history of jazz and American music.

In addition to all that, ‘So What’ is just insanely, other-worldly cool.  As cool as cool gets.  Cool as the other side of the pillow.  So cool that you can’t help but cover yourself with some of its coolness just by proximity to it (seriously, playing it will bolster your self-esteem and increase your prestige in the eyes of your fellow man).  You don’t need to know anything about jazz or music theory to fall under its intricate, atmospheric spell.  It’s music for Real People.™

Michael Strum: “Suffice it to say, Miles Davis was a giant. ‘So What’ is a perfect introduction to his canon, with all its grandeur. The balance, the construction, the consumate technial skill, the obvious love. The track plays on like the scale of the Himalayas; just when your eye thinks you’re done, you see another ridge and valley beyond, ’til you can’t fathom what your eyes are reporting. Such is what Miles Davis gives the ears. One doesn’t have to like peanuts or care about agricultural science to appreciate George Washington Carver; so it is with jazz and Miles Davis. Some genius is so great as to require only the slightest scrap of humanity to see it; we are all better for it.”

Rolling Stone: It’s likely that no song on this list has soundtracked more dinner parties than Kind of Blue’s warm, welcoming first track. But at the time it was a jarring departure, trading bebop chord changes for a more open-ended modal style. According to pianist Bill Evans, the trumpeter worked up his material just hours before recording dates, but the all-star band here sounds like it’s been living with “So What” for years: Saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley turn in solos that have since become as iconic as any in jazz history, and the rhythm section of Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb swings like it’s dancing on air.


1 And if any of them were alive today, they’d still be perhaps the best musicians on the planet.