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100 Greatest Songs of All Time: 50-1

on September 21, 2012, 7:11am
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20. Kate Bush – “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)”

Hounds of Love, 1985

Back in 1985, when EMI began to hype Kate Bush’s groundbreaking LP, Hounds of Love, representatives at the label were horrified at the prospect of promoting a lead single titled, “Deal with God”. They wanted “Cloudbusting”, Bush (justifiably) championed for “…God”, an argument she’d eventually win. However, the single would be retitled, “Running Up that Hill”, and its title on the album and all subsequent releases would be “Running Up that Hill (Deal with God)”.

In a 1992 interview with BBC Radio 1, Bush digressed on the situation, stating: “…we were told that if we kept this title that it would not be played in any of the religious countries, Italy wouldn’t play it, France wouldn’t play it, and Australia wouldn’t play it! Ireland wouldn’t play it, and that generally we might get it blacked purely because it had God in the title.”

It’s annoying how our world can be so pathetic, so prude, and so uncompromising. Granted, it’s just a title, but the song’s implicit themes are far from damning. “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)” preaches nothing but love and understanding. It’s a unifying message on the varying perspectives of gender, the idea of compromising one’s identity for the sake of understanding another’s. “And if I only could/ I’d make a deal with god/ And I’d get him to swap our places,” Bush sings repeatedly in the song’s chorus. She’s yearning for that perspective, so that she and her lover can understand one another, and possibly be happier in that realization.

Bush’s sweeping masterpiece has become a rallying battle hymn for equality. Charged with a volley of ambient rhythms, beats, and synth lines, it’s richly intelligent in design from top to bottom, making it one of the most intellectual pop anthems in music history. To date, despite a string of inspiring classics thereafter, it’s still the English songwriter’s most prevalent track. Sadly enough, this wonderful society of ours remains puzzled by its themes.  -Michael Roffman


19. Prince – “When Doves Cry”

Purple Rain, 1984

Purple Rain, Prince’s 1984 soundtrack magnum opus, is chock full of readymade hit singles, most of them clocking in under the 4:30 mark. But who could have predicted that this one — six sparse, tormented minutes of bassless synth-funk, composed by Prince literally overnight — would be the one to change the game, hitting number one, reaching platinum, and edging Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” off the charts for weeks?

Anyone who caught on to that disarmingly simplistic keyboard line and club-ready boom-clap, I guess. Or maybe anyone who really heard Prince’s tortured vocal performance — those inimitable squeals, the multi-tracking in the second verse, that piercing scream at 4:28. Maybe the answer lies in the guitar solo (one of Prince’s best), or those impossibly ‘80s keyboard arpeggios that close out the track. As is, “When Doves Cry” is more than the sum of its sly parts, an eerie, operatic yelp from the purple beyond.

But in typical smash-hit fashion, “When Doves Cry” almost never was: it was a last-minute addition. The rest of the songs had been completed when movie director Albert Magnoli asked Prince to record a song appropriate for a scene depicting parental reflection. Reportedly inspired by high school girlfriend Susan Moonsie, the result is at once fiercely sexy and desperately lonely. “How can you just leave me standing,” Prince pleads in ghostly self-harmony, “alone in a world that’s so cold?” Appropriately, it’s one of the few Purple Rain tracks that Prince recorded without the Revolution, benefiting immeasurably from its sparse arrangement, its wide open cavities. And the lack of bass? Another accident of fate. Prince recorded the track with a bass track, then deemed the song “too conventional,” so he axed it. “Nobody would have the balls to do this,” the Purple One reportedly bragged to an engineer. “You just wait — they’ll be freaking.” And frankly, we still are. -Zach Schonfeld


18. Bob Dylan – “Shelter from the Storm”

Blood on the Tracks, 1975

The early 1970’s found Bob Dylan at odds with fans, critics, labels, and even lovers. A string of poorly received country-tinged albums (Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait), an album consisting of cutting-room-floor tracks (Dylan), and what was essentially a “reunion” album with The Band to give him something to play on his first tour since ’66 (Planet Waves), left everyone wondering where the 60s icon had gone. But something happened between his return to the road and the dissolution of his marriage with Sara Lownds. 1975’s Blood on the Tracks was more than just a return to form, a return of the signature nasal voice, a return to Columbia Records; it was an album full of the most personal, impassioned songs Dylan had ever written. There, right at the end and with no more than three simple chords, Dylan pinned his heart to his sleeve like never before, and crafted one of the most poignant records ever to tackle love and loss: “Shelter from the Storm”.

Struggling with his status as Woodstock-era lion and the end of his marriage forced Dylan to look inward in ways unseen in his catalog to that point. “And now there’s a wall between us,” he sings of – presumably – Sara, “something else been lost/ I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed.” He expresses his own failures as a lover with an ease that connects instantly to anyone who’s looked back on a relationship and seen their missteps. However, unlike most of Blood on the Tracks, there’s a note of optimism throughout, alining heartbreak with love’s redemptive attributes. Dylan sings of broken bonds being retied, of how “beauty walks on a razor’s edge/ someday I’ll make it mine.” His poetics aren’t nearly as intricate as they often are, but it’s the same candor found in the music that lets listeners in to his emotionality, and that signaled Dylan-the-artist’s return. Sometimes you gotta fall low before you can rise high again; this song, both in concept and context, exemplifies that truth. -Ben Kaye


17. Otis Redding – “Try a Little Tenderness”

Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, 1966

Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness” is nothing short of a smoldering, seductive stew of sexuality, however, it took over 30 years and an entirely new arrangement at the hands of producer Isaac Hayes and backing group Booker T. & the MGs to help turn what was once a somewhat schmaltzy, maudlin and tame love song into the spellbinding R&B soul-stomper we now consider. Black artists in the 50s and early 60s who sought to cross-over into larger (read: white) markets often included “Try a Little Tenderness” in their personal songbooks, using it as part of a strategy to reach listeners and consumers, including future Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Years before her ordination, Franklin recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” for her 1962 album, The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin. Upon hearing Franklin’s cover, Sam Cooke added the song to his nightclub repertoire, singing two verses as part of a medley with “For Sentimental Reasons” and “You Send Me”, eventually releasing it on his live Sam Cooke at the Copa album in 1964. Redding was so inspired by Cooke it’s almost no surprise that he chose to cover “Try a Little Tenderness” upon hearing him tackle the number. However, where Cooke’s version is relatively ‘traditional’ and light-hearted, maintaining a restraint, Redding’s interpretation is entirely new and dynamic, abandoning the blasé for pure, raw emotion.

Beginning with a slow, soulful (and somewhat melancholic) melody, provided by the Stax horn section, Redding’s command of “Try a Little Tenderness” leads the song through a series of tempo and melodic changes, all building to an explosive finale punctuated by Redding shouting the words “You’ve got to hold her, squeeze her, never leave her” before vocally stomping the song’s title. Rather than catering to bland, beige trends and styles, Redding followed his own vision, interpreting and performing the song as only he could. History has rewarded him for it too. -Len Comaratta


16. Bruce Springsteen – “Jungleland”

Born to Run, 1975

It’s the young romantic crashing against the soon-to-be dark realist, the finest, and final, display of young Springsteen’s modernist street operas, a ten minute song brimming with the drama and imagery of a feature length film. But the song would be a footnote in his body of work had it not been for the sax solo that Bruce and Clarence Clemons famously took 16 hours to perfect. Clemons’ solo is the bridge between two Bruce’s. The one that surfaces at the end of the elegant three minute solo, singing about the Magic Rat’s crushed big city dreams and nighttime in the lonely silent city, never again sounded the same as the one singing about young kids flashing guitars like switch blades and exploding into rock and roll bands.

Bruce Springsteen will always be New Jersey’s native son, but when he was a young man he had his sights set on the big city. The boys and girls in Born To Run are looking for ways out of their small hometowns; they’re praying and singing, desperate for something more. “Jungleland” is where those hotrod dreams meet the urban reality, where a bunch of young kids travel over the Hudson River, a crossing ripe with metaphor for Springsteen, in search of something bigger.

“Jungleland” is also a hint at what’s to come. It’s fitting that the dying dreams and fading ambulance sirens of “Jungleland” are the last of what we hear from Springsteen for three years, when on Darkness on The Edge of Town, his 1978 album that would in many ways set the new direction of his songwriting for the rest of his career, the young men and women of Born To Run escape only to find out they’re trapped once again. It’s there they discover that you can’t leave your problems behind, but that you carry them with you each step you take. “Jungleland” taught that lesson first, and perhaps best. -Jon Bernstein


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