Top 100 singles of all time: from Bjork to the Beach Boys

367px-Björk_Rock_en_Seine_2007_by Bertrand

It’s an almost sad feeling as I wrap up this list – bundling in the top 40 in one final swoop – before tomorrow’s grand finale. I don’t even know what was going through my mind as I wrote the original list, beyond how far I agreed (or disagreed) with the traditional entries on such charts. Perhaps what surprised me was how orthodox my tastes are – perhaps simply because those songs are undeniably good – though I hope my more detailed individual postings have entertained, imparted a bit of trivia on your favourite songs, and maybe introduced you to something you hadn’t heard before.

With that in mind, I’m going to skip over the ones you already know well – Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir (which always sounds oddly weedy compared to the bowel-shreddingly heavy version in my head); River Deep, Mountain High; House of the Rising Sun, etc. (my top 40 is dominated by songs from the 60s). I’ll pause to mention Higher Than The Sun, because however many accolades have been awarded to Screamadelica, it still does not have the recognition such an otherworldly, transcendental song deserves. 

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The songs near the top of my list have the devastating ability to transform mood – to stop me in my tracks and make me feel completely different. Play Dead by Björk can move me to tears – it truly is one of the most movingly bittersweet songs I’ve ever heard


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and, as previously mentioned, Wash It All Off by Foetus can make me feel happy when I’m sad. (If this was a list of album tracks rather than singles, Foetus would be in the top two.)

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It’s not just the mood-manipulators that stunned me the most, though. It’s when a song artfully, beautifully goes off in an unexpected direction. Take Useless by Depeche Mode, for example: it was on Ultra, the first album Dave Gahan made after recovering from addiction. He said that he had to learn how to sing again, and presented the outcome with this track, with a chord progression so counter-intuitive it’s almost impossible to sing along.

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Sometimes it’s not the chord sequence, but the build-ups and breakdowns that make a song near-perfect. The Mission’s Kashmir-like Tower of Strength just builds up and up and up and up like an avalanche of sound

or Queen & Bowie’s Under Pressure, which takes a simple refrain and creates a masterpiece. Building and layering are recurrent themes in my top 20, whether it’s through vocals as in I Can See For Miles or Bohemian Rhapsody or in the intricately textured arrangements of ABBA’s criminally underrated Summer Night City or The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.

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Of course, if it’s a wall of sound you’re after, there’s no better place to go than Motown. Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Marvin Gaye all have places in my top 20, but the sheer authority of my number 4 – Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Street – is unrivalled.

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Yes, yes, you know these well – but could you possibly argue that The Kinks don’t deserve their place at number 3 with the haunting Waterloo Sunset?

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Now we’re so thoroughly beyond introductions, I don’t feel that The Beatles need much of an explanation for taking the number 2 spot for I Am The Walrus. Intricate, massive production with a full, fat chamber-orchestra sound. Strange, unexpected twists in melody. Instantly memorable chorus. I find the Beatles obscenely overrated most of the time – their pop songs were boring and The Kinks made better rock – but this … this is what music is supposed to be.

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What can top that?

There is one.

A song that builds up and up and up and up. A song that can transform mood. A song at once wrenchingly horrific, heart-stoppingly beautiful, uplifting and clever. A song with a singalong chorus, stirring strings and one of the greatest guitar solos in history. It will leave you feeling anything but Comfortably Numb.

It was released in 1980, backed with Hey You, and is one of only three songs on The Wall to be credited to both Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour, and it’s the tension between the two that makes the song so effective, since (after a number of screaming matches in the studio) it combines perfectly Waters’ orchestral leanings with Gilmour’s preference for heavy rock. It’s nearly 30 years since I first heard this song, and it still moves and inspires me in a way I wouldn’t have believed was possible.

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