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100 Greatest Songs of All Time: 50-1

on September 21, 2012, 7:11am
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30. Jimi Hendrix Experience – “All Along The Watchtower”

Electric Ladyland, 1968

Jimi Hendrix isn’t the only musician to turn a cover into their biggest hit, but few have succeeded using a song by one of the the world’s greatest songwriters. With universal themes about the low and downtrodden confronting the gilded towers of the powerful, Hendrix’s fervid and simply masterful guitar solos elevate the track’s tension in ways that were only hinted at in Bob Dylan’s original. The great bard himself, in fact, heralded this version as the consummate one in a 1995 interview with Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel Today: “He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using,” Dylan said of Hendrix’s version. “I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” He’s not the only one who has appropriated the power of this rendition. Everything from Forrest Gump to The Watchmen to The Simpsons has featured the song, most often in scenes dealing with the ’60s and the Vietnam War. Whenever there’s a moment of grand socio-political unease that needs intensifying, this is the go-to soundtrack. -Ben Kaye

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29. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

“Love Will Tear Us Apart”, 1980

Many songs have taken on new life after the untimely death of its creator. Released in April 1980, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” had barely scratched the surface before the sorrow of Ian Curtis’ suicide a month later propelled it up the charts. Yet it’s that tragedy which has always lingered and kept it unnaturally real, making it near impossible to find a more eloquent expression on fractured relationships. Curtis spilled his soul into these lyrics, reflecting upon his troubled marriage to his wife, Deborah, and its words and implicit meanings only took on an added poignancy following his untimely death. Decades later, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” continues to resonate, having been kept alive by successive generations and artists, whom all have found solace in its timeless poetry. -Tony Hardy

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28. Neutral Milk Hotel – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998

“I prefer for people to make up their own meanings to my songs and apply them to their life and relate to them the way they choose,” Jeff Mangum told Pitchfork in 2008. It’s important to keep that in mind when listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and final full-length, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and its title track. Yes, it revolves largely around Anne Frank and Mangum’s obsessive empathy for her, and yes, you could pick apart its lyrics and develop a thesis of how they tie into Frank’s death. But that sort of analytical approach has nothing to do with the song’s legacy. The Anne Frank connection was something very specific to Mangum, not the rest of us, and such dissection undercuts the track’s emotional clairvoyance, a critical approach of which Mangum wouldn’t approve. For me, “Aeroplane” glides along with an odd sense of ease. It’s about how a brief moment of contentment can sometimes outshine a crippling tragedy in one’s life. It’s more of an accepting viewpoint than an optimistic one. That’s what it means to me. What does it mean to you? -Dan Caffrey

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27. The Who – “My Generation”

My Generation, 1965

In rock music, “I hope I die before I get old” is as seminal a line as they come — the ultimate spit in the face of age and authority. “My Generation” tagged Pete Townsend as a spokesman for youth, a rebel with a clause. A simplistic rabble-rouser to empower kids and alienate parents, the song is equally inventive with Roger Daltrey’s frustrated half-swearing stutter and deft interplay between Townsend’s guitar and John Entwistle’s bass, countering Keith Moon’s frantic pounding. Though embraced by successive generations, it wasn’t a huge commercial success originally. Released in November 1965, it hit #2 in the UK charts, yet only #74 in the US. Since its release, critical recognition and periodic covers (e.g. Green Day, Oasis, Weird Al Yankovic, etc.) have kept it alive and screaming — it even closed the London 2012 Olympic Games. Truth be told, it’ll always be around, namely because those same young punks grow up and have similar rambunctious kids. -Tony Hardy

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26. Beastie Boys – “Shadrach”

Paul’s Boutique, 1989

Paul’s Boutique isn’t as mature as people think. Upon release, the Beastie Boys’ sophomore masterpiece still contained bulky traces of misogyny and violence in its lyrics, although thankfully none of the rampant homophobia found on Licensed To Ill. “Shadrach” was a sign of the more socially conscious, yet still very fun things to come. And Ad-Rock, Mike D, and especially the late MCA were just starting to figure out that responsibility and rebellion often went hand in hand. “Shadrach” let’s us know that stealing isn’t the same as assault, and that you can still quote the Book of Daniel with a blunt in your mouth. When Sly Stone chanted “Shadrach, Mesach, Abednago” in “Loose Booty”, it was purely for cadence. When the Beasties stole it, it became their own astonishingly accurate metaphor: three Jewish guys who rose above an empire by writing their own rules. This use of biblical imagery as a song’s centerpiece was a hip-hop first, and without it, we wouldn’t have “Jesus Walks” or, just as importantly, the evolved later work of the Beastie Boys themselves. -Dan Caffrey

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25. John Coltrane – “A Love Supreme Part 1: Acknowledgment”

A Love Supreme, 1965

John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is one of a very few number of jazz albums that everyone has heard before. Its combination of spiritual depth and post-bop intellectuality are initiated on “Part 1: Acknowledgment”, a mantra-driven gateway into a new, expansive world of music, the quartet chanting the album’s title in a way that’ll never leave your head. The album is a part of the Smithsonian’s collection and Rolling Stone’s best albums list, and the four-note theme developed on this shimmering, mesmeric pool of a track. Ashley Kahn’s book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, credits Coltrane’s massive impact on the music world largely to this album, noting that it’s the reason that “jazz fans, rockers and rappers, head-bangers and hip-hoppers all swear their allegiance to him.” -Adam Kivel

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24. The Rolling Stones – “Gimme Shelter”

Let It Bleed, 1969

Rape, war, Hell’s Angels, and the Mafia. Few songs conjure such a dreary hodgepodge of shocking albeit common tragedies. But “Gimme Shelter” manages this gruesome feat. The track’s release days after Altamont blindsided audiences in 1969 and its darkness continues to find sinister new meaning with appearances in three separate films by mobster auteur and Rolling Stone’s documentarian, Martin Scorsese. Keith Richard’s ominous intro hints at trouble on the horizon, but Mick Jagger’s napalm burns away any sense of security with one caustic truth: the danger’s already here. It’s not hidden away in foreign lands, where big airplanes transform children into smoldering monsters, but right in the neighborhood, where greasy vice peddlers skulk past your mailbox. There is no shelter, and there can never be peace. Merry Clayton’s accompanying banshee wails and distinctive vocal cracks are a harsh reminder to all flower children that weeds of destruction and violence will never be expunged so long as there’s a wicked demand for misery. In a sad yet poetic turn of events, Clayton’s unbridled howling may have cost her the fetus growing inside her belly, reinforcing the notion that life is fragile when death is “Just a shout away.” -Dan Pfleegor

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23. The Beatles – “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Revolver, 1966

Going into the recording sessions for the last song off Revolver, John Lennon allegedly told George Martin that he wanted the track to sound “like a hundred chanting Tibetan monks.” The result is undoubtedly his first psychedelic masterpiece, and a benchmark of The Beatles’ mid-career output. George Harrison’s droning tambura in C major mixed with reverse guitar solos, processed vocals, and looped tape effects create an audible LSD trip that would be copied by just about every band from 1966 to 1975. No longer a live act, “Tomorrow Never Knows” hears the group truly use the studio as an instrument for the first time, providing a vital missing link between their early years and the Sgt. Pepper era. While later albums would expand on the song’s trippy instrumentation, never had The Fab Four sounded more adventurous, yet intensely focused. -Bryant Kitching

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22. Pulp – “Common People”

Different Class, 1995

It took over a decade for Pulp’s alloy of post-punk, glam, and disco to grab mainstream attention and acclaim, but the Sheffield sextet finally found its breakthrough with its scathing condemnation. Although the reign of Britpop came to an end as trends inevitably do, “Common People” has maintained a timelessness that escapes other classics because its social message emblemized not just a decade in a specific place but the future it prophesied. As current indie music culture fixates on the ramifications of appropriation, authenticity, and gentrification that arise from “renting a flat above a shop,” the political climate in America is one of Occupy movements and the 1% versus the have-nots. America may not have been paying much attention to Pulp in 1995, but now is the time to outsiders overwhelmed by impotent rage to sing along to this cynical narrative. -Frank Mojica

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21. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”

Fear of a Black Planet, 1990 (single released in 1989)

“I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy,” Spike Lee told Time about his search for a signature song for Do the Right Thing, his 1989 joint about escalating racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The track that PE and the Bomb Squad delivered for Rosie Perez to dance to and Radio Raheem to blast from his boombox turned out to be hip-hop’s ultimate political anthem. Equal parts PSA and party, “Fight the Power” rages with Chuck D’s patented sportscaster boom, Flavor Flav’s sidekick antics, and loop upon loop of sampled chaos. Three little words never packed such a punch. -Matt Melis

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