The hottest 100, for the slightly elderly
THERE was a time any song list from the ABC’s Triple J would be a talking point for at least a week. This year’s Top 100 songs of all time hardly lasted a day.
The biggest controversy was about the lack of female artists which illustrates Triple J’s appeal and audience.
However, these lists prompt reflection on your own musical choices, as it did with Punch writer Chris Deal who unleased a collection of the crappest songs of all time. That led to some of the best abuse we’ve copped so far, including being called “a bunch of hipster douchebags”, to which most of us plead a fair cop.
On a recent plane ride I played with my iPod and picked out my Top 10 tunes, in no particular order.
Drunken Angel by Lucinda Williams is a standout song from the Louisiana girl’s stellar Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Singing with Jim Lauderdale, Williams tells the story of Blaze Foley, the late miscreant Texan guitar player and friend of Townes Van Zandt. “Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart/Over the strings of your guitar”. Joyous.
Running Dry by Neil Young comes his early, self-titled album and features the most heart-breakingly beautiful fiddle playing ever heard on a rock record. Bobby Notkoff is the culprit and he squeezes every drop of emotion from those strings, turning them into vinyl tears. It’s a song about a San Francisco band from the 60s, the Rockets, which contained the core of Young’s kick-arse bar band, Crazy Horse.
Amerika V 6.0 (The best that we can do) is Steve Earle’s best rock and roll song, from the Jerusalem CD. It lays bare the shallowness of the modern, consumerist USA, telling us “I remember when we was both out on the boulevard/Talkin’ revolution and singin’ the blues/Nowadays it’s letters to the editor and cheatin’ on our taxes/Is the best we can we do”. Driven along by mainlining percussion, this was the only song on the album recorded in New York and it sounds like it.
Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan. As well as being the only song I know of that’s been the subject of a book (by Greil Marcus), this is a clear piece of musical and lyrical genius. From the first drop of Bobby Gregg’s shotgun snare snap, Al Kooper’s genuinely magical organ and Mike Bloomfield’s bluesy guitar roll through and under Dylan’s brilliant lyrics. Recorded on June 15, 1965, with the master producer Tom Wilson (also the Velvet Underground) conducting, this was also the song that Dylan used to answer the charge of “Judas” in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1966.
Sunday Kind of Love by Etta James. One of the underrated voices, this is not as well known as At Last but it cuts to the heart of James’s captivating catalogue. The four times Grammy winner’s years at Chess were her best work and this song of desire is as good as she got.
Sister Got Soul by Alejandro Escovedo. Real rock and roll from Austin, Texas. Taken from his autobiographical - and best - album Real Animal this is a tribute to all of those musicians who flew too close to the sun. After a Phil Spector-inspired beginning, Alejandro sings that “every last heart is hardened/every last tear is cried”. It is one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded, carried high by Susan Voelz’s violin and Brian Standefer’s cello.
The Weight by the Band. Recorded at the famous Big Pink house in upstate New York, this is a classic piece of syncopated country rock. It’s archetypical theme is the traveller who’s asked to do a favour, but it’s captured in such rich imagery - with Biblical ambiguity by using the town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania as the setting - and performed with such charming rhythms and licks that you can’t not stop whenever you hear it.
Put The Law On You, Natalie Merchant. The former 10,000 Maniacs lead singer rumbles a bad man on this soulful rock-folk tune that stands out on an album that is otherwise high-minded (it was written in the shadows of September 11). It gets under your skin and highlights Merchant’s magnificent voice unlike anything else she’s done.
Lost Highway by Hank Williams. Originally the b-side to You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave) in 1949, this is a hell of a country song which tells of the troubadour who says booze and a woman’s lies sent him off down that Lost Highway. There’s a section of an interstate in Williams’s home state of Alabama which was renamed the Lost Highway in 1997 and the gold-panning label of the same name honours this star who died too young at 29. Steve Earle once said he was writing a book about the life of Hank’s doctor but no sign of it yet.
Sway by the Rolling Stones. From the 1971 Sticky Fingers album, this is an absolute stunning piece of slow and slurred music that tells us “that demon life has got me in its sway”. Attributed to the usual Jagger/Richards team, the real story is that it’s a Mick Taylor song written with Mick Jagger. But hell, it sounds like a Keith tune.
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