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Best Songs of the Last 100 Years

March 11, 2010

We thought about a challenging question....what is the best "pop" song (no definition offered) of each decade of the last 100 years?


A piano roll of one of the greatest tunes ever written, "The Maple Leaf Rag", was made by Scott Joplin in 1916. This has been wonderfully restored, and has to be the finest performance of the decade, if not the century. Everything about this song, and Joplin's performance, is utterly perfect. It has lasted over a hundred years for a very good reason. But "The Steeplechase Rag", in composer James P. Johnson's amazing 1917 piano roll gets a very honorable mention. (Both of these are available on a CD called "The Greatest Ragtime of the Century", and they ain't lying.)


I had to wrestle with this one quite a long time, but finally came down to Helen Kane: "That's My Weakness Now." Helen in large quantities can become wearying, but one-off, she is stellar. Her cheerful squeakiness works wonderfully here. This song is so fun, so clever, with glorious instrumentalists (who did it in one take!) and so well recorded that it is astounding to imagine it came from 1928. And its earnest sexiness is way more entertaining than the "romance" common today, "Hey, you, whatever your name is, let's do it."


It has to be Al Bowlly, but which one? Any of twenty different performances of his could qualify; he had few clunkers. But I just love "Close Your Eyes", which is wildly seductive, and I'm a man! Al managed to make every song sound as if he wrote it on the spot, but this one, with that great intro of the mournful trumpets, is just glorious. Not an easy selection. But a fine one.


Swing was fading and the smooth vocalists came along, bringing the end to some of the finest music ever written. There are hundreds of possible choices from this decade, but I am choosing "Murderistic" by Jimmy Dorsey, recorded two weeks after Pearl Harbor. That piano intro just glides into the amazing horns who then allow different voices to blare the theme. It works on all levels for me. Solos, great drumming, those lovely punchy background horns and a tune where everyone gets to take a moment to shine.


The decade of my birth was probably the first decade where music from every genre was hugely popular and easily available. Radio and the brand new, and amazingly flexible, LP were everywhere. By the mid-Sixties, there was really only Rock, with the odd "Love is Blue" or "Is That All There Is?" charting, but in the Fifties we had The Weavers, Perry Como, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, The Four Freshmen, and Mantovani on the charts. One of my favorite performers, doing one of my favorite songs, came from this decade, and like most everything else he did, was largely ignored. Cisco Houston performed a number of cowboy songs, over the years, infusing them with the dust and hard work and humor and pathos of a hard life lived (and often died) outdoors. My favorite is "Tying a Knot in the Devil's Tail", which celebrates toughness and insouciance in a way I find incredibly engaging. Find it if you can; it is charming, well-sung, with a superlative guitar accompaniment.


Well, everyone will think the Beatles, and "Something" is one of the great songs of their catalog and the decade. (I was never won over by the Beatles, other than George; possibly before my time, but I found them coy and self-important.) A song that says Sixties to me, which I loved the first time I heard and still stands up incredibly well, is "Temptation Eyes" by The Grass Roots. Wonderful arrangement, sterling vocals, and a fun vibe. From a band who never achieved anything close to this.


Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do" was a great song the first time I heard it on Frampton's Camel, and remains a great song today. While the far more famous live version is the one usually heard, I really prefer this take, recorded while Pete was still a musician and not quite the poster boy he became later. Possibly the most infectious rock hook ever written, it is a powerhouse blend of gritty vocals, snarling guitar, and, on the studio version, backup musicians who know how to rock.


Slade "In The Doghouse" Yep, Slade. High heels, mutton-chops, and Noddy's growling, snarling rasp. This will certainly stand out on this list, but, for whatever reason, the gritty and unkempt boys of Slade have been favorites of mine for many years. And still are. Saw them live in 74 or so, and it remains one of the most fun evenings I've ever had. (their opening act was a far inferior group called Aerosmith, with a hot new single that sounded pretty lame when stacked against Slade's catalog. I listen to very little of the music of my younger days. Aqualung and Tommy sound incredibly pretentious these days. This stuff grabbed then and still does, and they had a number of songs I could choose. Nearly every album they released had several winners on it. Raw, utterly un-self-conscious, self-deprecating, funny, and wildly rhythmic, Slade was the guiltiest guily pleasure I've very had.


Enya's "Caribbean Blue" She can sometimes be a bit gooey, but this is my favorite from her amazing catalog. Her beautiful voice is otherworldly here. And the arrangement creates a perfect accompaniment to those vocals. I made a CD a few years ago of 1000 years of gorgeous vocal music, and this track closed it. It is just amazing.


I do not know much pop music of the last decade, (I first heard the name Shakira last night, for instance....) but Sigur Ros is a group I have enjoyed since my first exposure. And that first exposure was to an tune called "Olsen, Olsen" an utterly ethereal and glorious blend of the bizarre and the melodic, creating a Jackson Pollack like dreamscape of sound that coalesceces into a beautiful and sensational tune. Nothing I've heard from the past 10 years comes close...this is a knockout creation, and a fitting conclusion to this list! Doubt I'll be updating it in another 10 years.

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