Here are (eventually) 100 of my favorite songs. This is a work in progress. I’ll probably add to the list more than weekly, but less than daily. Check back often if you’re interested.
My affection for a song is a sufficient condition for inclusion, though I will say a bit about why it appeals to me.
These are ordered only by whim.
“Take the Long Way Home,” Supertramp. Well, I’ll contradict what I just said, because when pushed to name a single favorite song, this is the one I usually name. I think this is supposed to be a sad song, or at least wistful—but I’ve never heard it that way. Its message of self-determination has always strongly appealed to me, and the melodies are heavenly.
“Run to the Hills,” Iron Maiden. All right, guys, tell me a story. Challenge yourselves, vocally and instrumentally. Make it an all-cylinders headbanger, but keep it tuneful. Check, check, and check. I loved this one as a snot-nosed 11-year-old, and my affection for it hasn’t waned a tenth of a percent. I believe this is as close to a perfect heavy metal song as anyone has ever written and recorded.
“Hey Hey What Can I Do,” Led Zeppelin. So many great songs from this band, but this one has hung onto my “favorite Led Zeppelin” slot for more than a decade. The production hits that perfect balance beyond sparkle but short of sterility. I enjoy its tempo for its sneakiness. The acoustic guitars and the somewhat deadpan (until the end) vocals disguise the fact that the beat is fairly rapid. I also like it because practically any rock band you ever see has this peculiar obligation to do a Zeppelin cover, but I never hear this one.
“Rhinestone Cowboy,” Glen Campbell. This was my very first “favorite song,” and the first contemporary song to which I knew all the words. At age 4 (that’s 1975, sports fans), I sat on my Aunt Dot’s piano bench at the Ross Hotel in Athens and sang her all the words, and she told the story of such to anyone who would listen until she died a few years later. I can also remember riding with my dad in the Riviera and just barely pulling this song in on a distant FM station, and him taking the time to tune it as best he could so I could hear it. That’s a part of my dad that I try to emulate with our boys.
“Got to Choose,” Kiss. I liked this one leading off Hotter than Hell, but it stole my heart on Alive! This is probably not Kiss’s final appearance on my list, but it’s been ensconced as my favorite track by my favorite band for several years now. It’s some of Ace’s finest work, and I love the songwriting. “Someone’s come along and shared your time/Don’t care/No I don’t, no/But you can’t be his and still be mine…” Look, you either be with me or you don’t, but I’m not participating in any split. That is the attitude of a well-adjusted human being, and it speaks to a respect for monogamy that I wish were more prevalent today.
“Men Without Shame,” Phantom, Rocker & Slick. The non-Setzer Stray Cats and Earl Slick had a band for about a week and a half, known for nothing but this song, and barely that. It’s seven minutes or so of big, nasty, bluesy guitar; a relentless bass line; and mountains of swagger. This is one of my all-time favorites to play at obscene volume levels. I have the debut album, which is really pretty good all the way through, on cassette. Alas, the only digital copy of it I have is a wow-and-flutter-fest from the old days of Napster. Wish I had a clean, high-quality MP3.
“Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” Lone Justice. “‘Cause you know you make my soul sing/And the bells in my heart go chime, chime, chime…” I don’t understand the failure of Lone Justice, and in particular Maria McKee, to break through to a larger audience. To me, this is still the singlemost talented female singer-songwriter on the planet, and I’m so pleased she’s continued to record. This one led off side 2 of Lone Justice’s 1985 eponymous debut, and it works as a country song, a rocker, a dance song, and a love song. It reliably makes me smile.
“Oh Well,” Fleetwood Mac. God, what a riff. I saw the weirdest Fleetwood Mac show ever—at the Gibson Guitars’ 100th Anniversary concert at Riverfront Park in Nashville in 1994. It was Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, some studio musician, Becca Bramlett on lead vocals, and Dave Mason (excellent!) on guitar. Did you know this incarnation ever existed? Man, they were great! The highlight of the show for me was “Oh Well.” I’d never heard it before, and didn’t know the title, so didn’t ever know what to ask/look for later. (And I didn’t want to just start buying old Fleetwood Mac records looking for it.) I finally stumbled across it on the radio a few years ago, and got the title. I’ve got a couple of different live cuts of it now.
“Love Has Taken Its Toll,” Saraya. A tiny woman named Sandi Saraya used to hang out when a band called Alsace Lorraine practiced. She grabbed a mike one day, shook the house to pieces, and renamed the band. Saraya bubbled up during the late ’80s torrent of hard rock, and relatively speaking, didn’t make a lot of racket. This one got some brief heavy rotation on Headbanger’s Ball and Hard 30 on MTV, though, and to this day a song has never hit me harder on a first listen than this one. I love the acoustic intro, and the extended outro is engaging. I think Sandi must have lungs to the tips of her toes.
“I Know What I Want,” Cheap Trick. Tom Petersson is my favorite bass player. He’s also one of those guys who can sing because he can’t sing, you know? Robin Zander’s unambiguous excellence only accentuates the contrast. There’s a little punk vibe to this one, and I’ve always heard a Stones undercurrent in it too. Lots of fun live.
“Rain,” The Cult. Ah, here’s another song you should turn up to “blow your speakers out,” and back it off one click. The Cult was one of the hipper bands I was into back in the day. They were cool enough to please the college crowd, but heavy enough to turn the headbangers on too. The drive is relentless, and the onomatopoeic bass and percussion are masterful.
“Little Earthquakes,” Tori Amos. I wish I could let myself get away with putting the whole album here, but I’ll stick with the title cut. Her playing, singing, and songwriting all blow me away. She’s not been a particularly easy artist to follow over her career—lots of twists and turns, and even a couple of what-the-hell-was-thats—but she’s forever chasing this album, in my view. This is all-time Top 10 for me.
“Unchained,” Van Halen. Fair Warning is my favorite Van Halen album. I enjoy its darkness and dirtiness, and the contrast they create with the smiling Eddie sound. This is a great example of a song that sounds live when you listen to the studio cut, and otherworldly when you hear it live. This is one of my favorite riffs: melodic, but still crunchy and nasty. If I ever learn to play my guitar competently, I want to get good at playing the beginning of this song.
“I Wish,” Stevie Wonder. A band a buddy of mine was in used to play this, instrumentally, as bumper music. I thought it was a really cool choice. There are so many great Stevie Wonder songs (remember when he did “Superstition” on Sesame Street? How cool was that?), but the horns in this one just carry me away every time.
“Everybody,” Tommy Roe. Here’s a guy I’d have never heard of had it not been for my dad’s boxes of 45s, which he gave me free reign over about two years before I should have had such. He pitched “Sweet Pea” to me as the hot one, and I liked it, but I really dug the menacing bass line of this one. This is a textbook example of “if the riff is good enough, you don’t need anything else.” (This is the original cut; there’s an awful, softened, rerecorded one floating around out there that should be avoided.)
“Baba O’Riley,” The Who. This is my favorite song by The Who by half a hair over “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (and for a straight ahead rocker, it’s tough to beat that one). It’s really the vocals that cinch this one for me. I love that the song shows off both Daltrey and Townshend’s talents without sounding forced, and the melody is marvelous.
“Destination Unknown,” Missing Persons. This was #1 on Bo’s Favorite Pop Songs of the 1980s. The guitars, synths, and Dale Bozzio’s voice create an entire world, encapsulated in its three minutes and thirty-five seconds.
“Hey Jude,” The Beatles. It goes on, and on, and on…and it could be ten minutes longer and I wouldn’t complain a bit. Get a truly killer hook, and you don’t need anything else.
“Wunderkind,” Alanis Morissette. I only recently saw The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and as I was basking in the spectacle of the just-seen film, this beautifully haunting song ran over the credits and punched me in the stomach. I’d normally be hesitant to put such a recently-heard song on a canonical favorites list, but I’m confident this one will stay in the highest regard with me. The lyrics are poetic and thought-provoking, and I adore the phrasing and melody of the chorus.
“Run Runaway,” Slade. This was late for this band. My exposure to this song came exclusively from MTV, who played this video in regular rotation early on, and then in and amongst hard rock/hair metal as that took hold. It’s a big goofy amalgamation of arena rock and what sounds like a jig to me, and I still love to blast it in the car.
“I Want You,” Savage Garden. I wish I could tell you what it was about this song. All I know is it zings the hell out of me. When I try to listen to it objectively, I hear a late ’80s-early ’90s pop song that is competently performed, but not particularly remarkable. When I turn loose of the analysis and crank it, I float right away.
“Mas Tequila,” Sammy Hagar and the Waboritas. I hereby proclaim this the best party song ever written and recorded. If you don’t get up and dance with this one cranked, you can’t be my friend anymore. Heh.
“Shake Me,” Cinderella. I just barely caught exposure to this one before we moved from the Anniston area to the Huntsville area in 1986, and it was the first song I was seriously into after we moved. There’s almost nothing to it—it’s your basic straight-ahead rocker—but man, there’s just something about it. I’ve blogged before about Cinderella not deserving to be lumped in with Poison and Britny Fox, and this is a good example. They’re the spiritual descendants of Aerosmith if they’re anything.
“Delta Dawn,” Helen Reddy. This is one of the finest uses of a female vocal and a piano together in existence. This was one of my very first 45s (to prove it, I’ll tell you the B-side was/is “If We Could Still Be Friends”). Moreover, it should be held up as an archetype for pop music production. This is clean without sterility.
“Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns N’ Roses. All hail the opening track of the only album I ever bought and listened to absolutely exclusively for six months. Was that really more than 20 years ago? With hindsight, it’s easy to see that this was the first definitive step toward grunge, and I didn’t really care for the final “deliverable” on that path. However, the crunchy hard rock I enjoyed with a healthy scoop of that grungy stuff over the top was, and is, delicious.
“Fly Me Courageous,” Drivin n Cryin. This is another one like “Little Earthquakes” in that I wish I could put the whole album, but I’ll just stick with the title cut. I always thought of these guys as somewhere between The Cult’s heavier stuff and REM. Are the lyrics the embodiment of nonsense or profundity? Love the just-sloppy-enough-to-sound-live production and playing.
“Welcome to the Boomtown,” David & David. This lyrically crass commentary on some of the excesses of the 1980s has been the omission from Bo’s Favorite Pop Songs of the 1980s that I regret the most. This is such a rich and engrossing song. “That’s good enough” came out of no one’s mouth when they were laying this one down in the studio.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” The Verve. Yeah, yeah, I know they ripped the Stones off or whatever, but the continuous repetition of the sample, which was new to this song, was what made it happen for me. I could mostly take or leave the clichéd angst of the lyrics, but they were unquestionably part of the spectacular climax of Cruel Intentions.
“Kiss You All Over,” Exile. Yes, there are some dated production-type trappings, but mostly it’s still one hell of a love song, with a great riff. Plus, I’m a sucker for a skillfully passed around lead vocal.
“Fall to Pieces,” Velvet Revolver. Velvet Revolver (RIP, as of this writing), given its personnel, was the most plausible hope for recapturing Appetite-era Guns n’ Roses. Though they were a fine band who did two great records, they never quite got there—but this song got closest. Slash lays it out massively on this one, and though Scott Weiland did a fine job with the vocal, tell me you can’t hear Axl growling his way through this one.
“Love is a Rose,” Linda Ronstadt. Now if all country music sounded like this, I’d be a huge fan of the genre. What a tremendous bundle of vocals and production! Pre-1980, Linda Ronstadt was tough to top.
“Southern Cross,” Crosby, Stills & Nash. Part of my affection for this one is nostalgia (it was all over early MTV, believe it or not), and part of it is in how gloriously the song is constructed. It’s a great vehicle for their signature harmonies, and the guitar sound is so clean. I much prefer the extended version that ends with a third verse.
“Limelight,” Rush. There are a lot of amazing songs from this band, and I find perhaps a dozen of them truly exceptional. This is the top of the top for me. I love the complexities in the rhythm and tempo, and the lyrics are masterfully poetic.
“So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away),” Dave Mason. My dad loved this record when I was a little boy, and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s a fabulous riff that leans country without ever biting it all off. And hey, let’s stick a whole mess o’ horns in the middle!
“Flower,” Moby. Quantitatively, there may be less to this song than any other on the list. It’s essentially one musical phrase, repeated over and over, with minimal lyrics. Mr. Hall has written a modern Deep South spiritual, with obvious connections to 150 years ago, but also with phenomenal modern instrumentation. Love the menacing piano line! (You may know this one from the slick intro of the 2000 movie Gone In Sixty Seconds; if so, you probably left it with the impression that the song was called “Bring Sally Up.”)
“Runaway,” Del Shannon. As this list takes shape I find I’m valuing perceived timelessness highly, and here is another example. Every time I hear this song I can’t believe it’s as old as it is. Most of that quality is production, I think. I enjoy the relentless wistfulness of the lyrics, made all the more haunting by Del Shannon’s eventual suicide, 29 years after this song was released.
“Cinnamon Girl,” Neil Young. I’m never going to love Neil Young, but I like him today much more than I ever thought I would. I love the crunch of this one. He fell in love with the guitar sound he got here and just ladled it on for days.
“Tattooed Love Boys,” The Pretenders. Here’s another one that grabbed me on early MTV. This is right at the intersection of post-punk and new wave that made for some fantastic guitar sounds. I love how this one pummels you and never lets you up (and again, another phenomenal car stereo song).
“Magic Man,” Heart. The relentless rhythm track is a big factor. I also love the in-your-face production of Nancy’s guitar.
“What’s Up,” 4 Non Blondes. I’m such a sucker for the “building” song—the one that teases you with its potential, then wallops you with it. Linda Perry’s vocal qualifies.
“Tangled Up In Blue,” Bob Dylan. I’m confident I’m never going to get Bob Dylan to the degree that many people do. However, I’ve loved this one from the first time I’ve heard it. The lyrics are delivered with genuine passion, and I really enjoy the deceptively complex rhythm.
“Do It Again,” The Kinks. I wish I loved more old Kinks than I do. What a tremendous band. They’ve done dozens of great tunes for which I just can’t overcome my prejudice against their tinny (era-appropriate) production. I like those tunes, but don’t love them. Then along comes “Do It Again.” It’s a classic Kinks song—the writing, the performance, the everything is top-notch—but with mid-’80s production. Love it to bits.
“Tallahassee Lassie,” Freddy Cannon. My dad was 15 when this one came out, and loved it immediately. I loved it the first time he played it for me. It was also the song I played back to back with some of my “noise” when I was a teenager to demonstrate to my dad that rock ‘n’ roll was rock ‘n’ roll, baby. Throw this one on the list of songs I’m definitely learning to play.
“Roundabout,” Yes. I drown in this song every time I hear it. I suppose this is technically prog, but this track really does have something for everyone.
“Shambala,” Three Dog Night. I don’t remember what they opened with, but I do remember that Three Dog Night went straight into this one second in the set list the only time I ever saw them. This level of picking is fairly rare in the chord-dominated realm of the pop song, and I love the occasionally “overbearing” bass too.
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. You have to list both men or you’re being disingenuous, in my view. I really can’t stand Jim Steinman songs unless Meat Loaf is singing them, and this is the top of the top. (This is yet another case in which I wish I could list the entire album.) Is anyone in popular music this ambitious anymore?
“Riding,” Buckcherry. Can’t deny this one any longer. These riffs are as rich as five gallons of dark chocolate. Might be my favorite hard rock song of the past decade.