This is my current personal list of top 20 songs. These are the songs that have had the most impact on me, shaping my taste in music, and in some ways my whole personality. This list hasn’t needed to change much in the last decade or so, since these songs have had incredible staying power with me. Of course, I have a top 100 list as well, that is even more diverse, and includes an insane range of musical genres, and spans centuries. But these are the ones I go back to time and again, because of both the quality of the songs themselves, and the personal connections I have with them. I’ll be describing a bit of this in the next few posts. So, in no particular order:
1. Afro Celt Sound System & Peter Gabriel – When You’re Falling (album version) – source: “Volume 3: Further In Time” (2001)
This one has the least definable reason for earning a place on the list. Of course, the production is stellar, and especially the recording quality of ACSS’s vocals has a clarity and presence that is unusual for a group of vocalists of that size. But for me, this is an exercise in raw emotional connection with a song that goes beyond any technical reason. I first heard/saw it used in an IMAX presentation called Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk, in 2002, and have loved it ever since.
2. Enya – Storms In Africa (Part II) – source: Bonus track on some versions of Watermark album, b-side of original 7″ single (1988)
Specifically part II, which has lyrics in English. The brightness of this version is unlike anything else released at the time. So many crystalline layers of treble in the vocals, strings, and percussion. The prominence of the African drumming in this version, coupled with the field recordings of rain and thunder give it a power that elevate it above the other popular Enya songs, in my opinion. I spent a long time (successfully) perfecting my own cloning of the arpeggiated synth sound that runs through it, and I spent hours playing that part by hand. This was one rare time where I specifically walked into a record store and bought a 45, just for the b-side. It became a “road trip tape standard” for years.
3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome To The Pleasuredome (including all intro sections) source: Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1984)
This is a bit of a cheat, because I’m including “Well…”, “The World Is My Oyster”, and “Snatch Of Fury (Stay)” in this (which the link above misses), as I consider them all intro sections of the song. This is a flat-out masterpiece. Ostensibly a dance track, it has so many different things going on, it defies any genre pigeonhole. A perfect example of the determination and perfectionism of Trevor Horn, one of my personal idols for his contributions to the world of studio production. Every note and sound in this work was clearly painstakingly created and placed. Particularly noteworthy are the insanely complex bassline, backwards hi-hat loops, various layers of field recordings, brilliant guitar effect work, and sound palette encompassing so many different types of sounds (I tried counting once, and got lost after 100 ). This song never fails to make me feel awake and alive, no matter how I’m feeling before I listen to it.
4. Front 242 – Headhunter V1.0 source: Front By Front (1988)
Hey, I just discovered while looking for a link that “COMA Music Magazine ranked “Headhunter” as the greatest industrial song of all time in 2012.” Well ok then! Yes, I have the 4 CD set that has nothing but remixes of this song. But Version 1.0 is where it all started for me, and I had already been a pretty big Front 242 fan for at least a couple years before it was released. The way they proved that the Yamaha DX-7 synth, a staple of 80s synth pop, could be tortured to produce some really harsh sounds directly informed my own FM synthesis creation process for years. As a DJ at the time, putting this track on and watching the entire dance floor go ballistic was always deeply satisfying. Even 10-15 years later, I would still occasionally be in a club when this got played, and clearly there are a lot of people who still remember (or freshly discover) how perfect this song is for jumping around like a maniac. Also, I think I may have suffered a little bit of permanent hearing damage watching them perform it live during the Reboot tour, one of the best concert experiences of my life.
5. Imagine – John Lennon source: Imagine (1971)
What can you say about the quintessential song about world peace? Yes, I remember exactly where I was on the night of December 8th, 1980, and it had a profound impact on me. I could write a whole separate essay on how it changed my perception of the adult world, and how I felt connected to the adults in my life at the time because they were all as shocked and devastated as I was. I still stop what I’m doing on that day every year, and spend some time listening to John Lennon. I’m a decent keyboard player, and a decent singer, but I’m rarely coordinated enough to do both at the same time with any success. This song is one notable exception. If I ever had to perform live by myself somewhere, this is probably the only song I’d feel confident I could do some justice to.