Alright, time to move on to the next decade… so all you stragglers out there, better get your 60s lists in soon. Or, later, whatever. It’s cool. I had a bit more time to put this together, leading to a bit of research, some downloads and such, but ultimately, when putting together a list of five, you tend to go with the five you already know and know best. Still, the best part of these lists are going through old songs and picking your favourites and maybe rediscovering some you haven’t heard in awhile. That said, this list could easily change in a few weeks.
As with my Best Songs of the 60s list, I’m limiting this to one to one song per artist. That gives me some variety, and is actually easier that way (since I don’t have to go through my favourite artist’s entire catalogue to decide my top few from them, instead I can just chose my favourite song).
5. “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan from Desire (1976)
Inspired by the story of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, whom Dylan believed to be wrongly convicted for double-homicide, comes this cinematic tour de force. At 8 minutes and 33 seconds, the track is so long that one had to turn over the 45 just to hear the whole single. Dylan sets the song up like a movie, beginning with the scene of the murder in a style reminiscent of a pre-credits sequence, before hitting off the chorus “Here’s comes the story of the Hurricane”. He then continues to document the case of police corruption, racism, and injustice that led to Carter’s conviction, spitting out the story with a palpable anger, backed by a driving violin and percussion from the Rolling Thunder Revue that keep the intensity throughout the marathon song.
Sample lyric: “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall./
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood,/
Cries out, “My God, they’ve killed them all!”
4. “London Calling” by The Clash from London Calling (1979)
Released in December of 1979, this track sometimes pops up in both best of the 70s and best of the 80s lists. Is it possible for one song to the best track from two decades? An eerie, apocalyptic look at a crumbling British empire, Joe Strummer barks out a call to arms over the punching staccato riffs of Mick Jones and the hypnotic bass line of Paul Simonon. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be alive when this came out (well… alive and out of diapers, that is), while rock was being strangled by corporate rock and disco, and then have this track blow my mind.
Sample lyric: “The Ice Age is coming, the sun zooming in/
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin/
A nuclear error, but I have no fear/
Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river”
3. “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye from What’s Going On (1971)
Wow, three songs in a row describing society’s ills. Methinks that the 70s might’ve been turbulent times, even if That TV Show didn’t seem to show it. Of course, my tastes tend to play toward the serious, at least for top five purposes. Actually, Marvin Gaye had a few tracks contending for this list, including “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” from the same album, and “Let’s Get it On”, but I had to go with his masterpiece. Dismayed with the world around him and the ongoing Vietnam War (and the struggles of protesters to the war), Gaye recorded this conversational track questioning the world as he saw it. He had to fight with Motown chief Berry Gordy, who deemed it uncommercial, to get it released and the song wound up not only achieving huge commercial success, but also became the crowning achievement of his career.
Sample lyric: “Mother, Mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong/
Oh, but who are they to judge us/
Simply because our hair is long”
2. “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones from Road to Ruin (1978)
I was torn between this and “Blitzkrieg Bop” as my Ramones selection for the list, but decided to go with this one because I like it a bit more, and it’s no fun always picking artist’s most famous songs. Instead, I went with their second-most famous song. Shut up. Only the Ramones could make a song this upbeat with the word “sedated” in the title. Possibly the best song about life on the road touring, which is probably a list for another time.
Sample lyric: “Just put me in a wheelchair, get me to the show/
Hurry hurry hurry, before I go loco/
I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my toes/
Oh no oh oh oh oh”
1. “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young from Harvest (1972)
It takes about 35 seconds for this track to overcome me. All I need to hear is Young’s fragile voice sing the opening line “I wanna live”, and I’m hooked. It’s a simple track, using four chords, some harmonica, an acoustic guitar, and two verses to get its point across. But Young is able to use its simplicity to get the heart of the matter, delivering an affecting piece of music that’s instantly nostalgic and never gets old.
Sample lyric: “I wanna live, I wanna give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold”
Honourable Mentions: “Easy” by The Commodores, “Get Back” by The Beatles, “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, “Natural’s Not in It” by Gang of Four, “Well Well Well” by John Lennon