A Special Report from Agent Parlophone
When Palmer tasked me with putting together an A – Z list of essential songs, my mind reeled at the possibilities…
There were so many directions to go with this.
You see, I once worked in a record department for more than half a decade. I own close to 1000 CD’s (yes I’m old). And those are just the one’s I’ve kept. And that doesn’t include downloaded music. AND…
There were too many possibilities.
Trying to narrow down just 26 songs to a list of ‘essentials’ seemed damn near impossible. Not without leaving off hundreds of necessary (to me) tracks of music.
It became so overwhelming, I found I couldn’t even get started. As much as I loved one song, there were plenty more right behind it that seems just as worthy…
Damn you, Palmer!
So, in order to complete my assignment I decided I needed to set some parameters and limit the countless hours of research and fretting that seemed inevitable.
What you will find here are tracks that i have culled from my own iTunes playlist. A collection of songs that regardless of age, genre or origin, have followed me around from format to format and seem to still find a home on my most recent listening device. These are not necessarily the 26 best songs I know, but rather 26 of the most constant songs that have clung to me for one reason or another.
Here they are:
A – All These Things That I’ve Done by The Killers
Sometimes a song is just a perfect blend of melody, rhythm, build and release. This is one of them. An anthemic synth-rock track wrapped in clever lyrics with a ‘killer’ break down in the middle – I will love this song forever and wish that I wrote it. “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”
B – Ball and Biscuit by White Stripes
Jack White wasn’t kidding when he said that he didn’t want to just play his guitars but rather wanted to get into a fight with them. Based upon a basic blues back bone, this track ebbs between the controlled swagger of a man picking said fight and the chaos that ensues when the fists fly. Although it clocks in at over 7 minutes, White’s guitar tone and attack here always leave me wishing for 7 minutes more.
C – Chemical World by Blur
Most folks I know think of this Kinks-y band as only Song 2 (the Woo-hoo song) or Girls and Boys. This track of their sophomore album Modern Life is Rubbish is the one I always whip out to counter that thought and show how much more there is to this group than they realize. Blur’s strong, sharp, concise pop/rock song construction are all evident here – guitar hooks, start/stop verses, witty lyrics and a sing along chorus. A much better indicator of what this group in the 90’s was all about.
D – The Distance by Cake
Some bands take themselves too seriously, Cake on the other hand, shove their tongue so far into their cheek it pokes right through the other side. When you add this song writing approach to a thumping bass line, narrated vocals, buzz saw guitar riffs, a snappy beat and then wrap it all up with some trumpet and Theremin – you’ve got one great song!
E – Everything’s Not Lost by Coldplay
I’m a sucker for a sad song from time to time and in their early days, Coldplay was pretty damn good at it. Singer/pianist Chris Martin and guitar player Jonny Buckland have a tremendous way of meshing sorrowful piano chording with the perfect (if not overly simple) guitar line and this song is the first time I heard it. Simply, this is one of those “saw me through a difficult time” tracks.
F – Fire by Jimi Hendrix
Every guitar player worth his or her salt has prayed at the altar of Jimi at some point or another no matter how brief or lengthy the visit and I’m no different. Fire was the first song I ever heard by Mr. Hendrix blaring out of my brother’s room and I fell in love with it instantly. The rhythm and attack hit me like sucker punch in places I never knew existed and started a love affair with the guitar virtuoso long before I even considered playing six strings.
G – Grateful When Your Dead/Jerry Was There by Kula Shaker
A 90’s group fully informed by the psychedelia of the 60’s and the blues rock of the 70’s, this song is probably one of my favourite on the list. It straight up rocks with a phenomenal riff, call and response construction, plenty of wah’d out guitar improvisation between stanzas, a driving beat and classic rock ‘n roll posturing. Even better, the back half of the song breaks down into a Grateful Dead inspired reprise full of trippy effects and hand drums that crescendos into a euphoric finish. “Jerry was there, man!”
H – Helicopter by Bloc Party
After Radiohead went all weird and whiny (just one man’s opinion, relax) post 2000, there was a void left in me for their brand of inventive guitar rock and this song is probably the closest thing anyone has ever put out to fill that space. The interplay between Okereke’s and Lissack’s guitars is simply mind bending. Add to it walloping drums and an overly urgent, yelping vocal and this song will take you on a ride you won’t soon forget.
I – I Can’t Quit You Baby by Led Zeppelin
Through Led Zeppelin, I was introduced to the blues and it sent me down a worm whole of music that changed me forever. I owe a fundamental part of myself to this band – they were my spring board to everything. This track in particular played every day for an entire summer in my bedroom as I hung on every note, phrase and beat. It’s everything the blues is supposed to be: moody, miserable and unbelievably cathartic.
J – Just by Radiohead
No band furthered what was possible in guitar rock sonics than Radiohead. This track in particular does the most with the typical 90’s quiet verse loud chorus format and is an all out assault on the senses – swirling radio static guitars, unyielding bass groove, banshee wail vocals and a final minute that I call the greatest crescendo/outro in rock history. Period.
K – Keep it Hid by Dan Auerbach
Dan Auerbach loves vintage equipment and most of his recordings come across like they could have been made 50 years ago or more – and its all on display here. Sounding like it could have been recorded at the bottom of a well, the sleazy distortion, thick reverb, desperately pleading vocal and plodding yet purposeful beat in this track help propel it to another level. The kind of song I love to hear on a sweltering summer day.
L – Little Black Submarines by Black Keys
You would be a fool to try and emulate a song as massive and iconic as Stairway to Heaven, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t the most successful recreation/reimagining I’ve ever heard. Another Auerbach penned tune, it’s not quite as broad in scope or instrumentation as Stairway, but what it does manage to create is a more compacted take that builds and releases in a final section that rivals its predecessor. Points.
M – Mile End by Pulp
For the most part, I have little to no use for kitschy synth-pop, but there’s just something about this band that captured me in no small way so they are a must for this list. Everything I love about them is here: a poppy dance beat and bouncy synths provide the back drop for Jarvis Cocker to deliver his kitchen sink drama lyrics. One part Bowie, one part disco and the rest a heaping of social commentary, Pulp get me everytime.
N – Not If You Were The Last Junky On Earth by Dandy Warhols
Years ago, I saw the film DIG which chronicles the relationship between the Dandy’s and another band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre. This song was written presumably about Jonestown frontman Anton Newcombe who was spiralling out of control from heroin addiction while the Dandy’s were rising to fame. Best part? I met Anton the next month while at Lollapalooza in Chicago as he was travelling between stages. As for the song, its catchy as hell and has a great 60’s mod and 90’s Brit pop feel to it even though the group hails from Portland.
O – Out on the Weekend by Neil Young
Growing up as a teen in the city in which Young spent his teen years, I have a big old soft spot for this man and his music. Although I like some of Young’s more rocking Crazy Horse stuff, this is where I like him the best – an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a lyrical story that rings with simple truth.
P – Paint it Black by Rolling Stones
One of the first songs I can ever remember hearing from the Stones and it’s stuck with me forever. It’s incredibly original right from the first string of notes on Jones sitar to the urgent driving beat and Eastern Indian melodies. Couple this with an explosive chorus and Jagger’s bemoaning, morbid vocal/lyrics and it creates one of the greatest songs ever written.
Q – Queer by Garbage
When you put three prominent music producers together in a studio and tell them to make a band, this is what you get – slick, professional and meticulously crafted music. However, none of those men could sing so they were wise to hire slinky/sultry yet abrasive Shirley Manson of Anglefish to compliment those polished sounds with her thin and airy vocals over top. To that end, this song is my favourite marriage of all those elements.
R – Red light, Green Light by The Wildhearts
When I was first introduced to the Wildhearts, I didn’t know what to make of them. One part heavy metal, one part Bon Jovi and one part Brit pop. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I’ll be damned if this group doesn’t crank out fist pumping sing along anthems like nobody’s business. Red Light opens with 50’s doo-wop vocal harmonies, kicks into Marshal stacks on 11 guitar riffing and then releases in a call and response chorus that will have you up and dancing on the furniture.
S – She Bangs the Drums by Stone Roses
The opening couplet “I can feel the Earth begin to move, I feel my needle hit the groove” encompasses everything this song is about. Built on an absolutely fantastic bass line and shimmering guitar notes (there’s a short but absolutely vital solo in the middle section), it’s the kind of song you leap to your feet for, back when we used to dance to music that didn’t need an electronic beat.
T – Teenage Icon by The Vaccines
As a massive fan of late 80’s to 90’s Brit pop/rock, it tickles me to no end when I discover current bands taking up the torch and bring it into the future. For me, the Vaccines are out in front as the best I’ve heard and Teenage Icon is their banner. A three minute blast of anthemic rock ‘n roll defiance and pain fully aware self deprecation, this track will work its way into your brain with a rapid fire drum beat, Johnny Marr inspired guitar attack and a chorus hook for days.
U – Underwhelmed by Sloan
In the early 90’s as music from the Pacific North West began to explode across the world, record companies were scrambling to find the next ‘big thing’ to fit under that sonic umbrella. Canada’s Sloan were one of those groups brought into the fold – based solely on the sound and popularity of this track. Although sonically Underwhelmed is draped in grunge-y guitar fuzz, the brilliance is in the pop sensibilities and tongue in cheek phrasing that would become the band’s calling card as they progressed through the years. As Chris Murphy sings here, “They missed the point.”
V – Vaseline by Elastica
For Elastica, a minute twenty five is all you need to write a great song and tell the world what you’re all about. When it’s packed with punchy guitars, popping bass, cheeky, sexually charged vocals and start/stop song structure all wrapped up in a snotty punk rock attack 85 seconds is all you need. That’ll do ladies, that’ll do.
W – (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais by The Clash
I simply love the Clash and their blend of punk, garage and ska – full stop. Those ingredients are all on display here with it’s reggae guitar strokes and buoyant bass line, all the while Mick Jone’s ‘woo-oohs’ in the background and Joe Strummer pokes at all of punk-dom with lines like, “Punk rockers in the UK, they won’t notice anyway, they’re all too busy fighting, for a good place under the lighting.” Brilliant.
X – X.Y.U. by Smashing Pumpkins
Ok, so not my favourite Punkin’s track, but they were a gateway band for me and in no small way a significant motivator in my quest to consume music so they needed to make the list. That and so few songs start with X 🙂 That being said, all the signature sounds that I love about the group are found here: layered, zipper-saw guitar sonics and Jimmy Chaberlain’s dynamic, heavy drumming juxtaposed with Billy Corgan’s child-like, angst-ridden vocal delivery. Too bad the group lost it’s way starting with this album IMO. You’re mileage may vary.
Y – You Know I’m No Good by Amy Winehouse
Rehab may have been the bigger single, but to me the crown jewel of Amy’s Back to Black album is right here. It’s not enough that this slight framed Brit in her 20’s belts it out with the soul and experience in her voice as any powerhouse woman 3 or 4 times her senior, but its all backed with a heavy footed rhythm section and bright horns (via the tremendously talented production of Mark Ronson) that make this song a neo-soul classic.
Z – Zero by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Already a fan of the YYY’s arty New York take on punk and garage rock, they threw me for a loop when they released the album It’s Blitz. Replacing their old sound with thumping synthesizers and trippy keyboards, this track is a perfect example of their new sound at its best. Shimmering electro-pop clashes underneath Karen O’s yelps and wails that escalate in a crescendo-ed release that will have you turning in your guitar a good pair of dance shoes in no time.
Agent Parlophone aka Chris Maier (@chrismaierbc) is a Canadian husband and father to two girls. He wanted to be a lead guitarist growning up, but instead settled for being a small business owner. You can hear him on his music/album based podcast Our Liner Notes or with his wife on the couples podcast How Was Your Week Honey.