80. The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army

The White Stripes have always been kind of an enigma to me. It seems that I can't really believe anything they say about themselves. There was them saying that they were brother and sister. Then it was the rumor that they were a couple. Evidence of a marriage in 1996 (and a divorce in 2000) created more confusion in my brain. But then it occurred to me that maybe that's exactly what Jack and Meg White (the two members of the band) were trying to do. They didn't want people focusing on their relationship, they wanted people focusing on their music. So once I got all of that out of my head, I found it a lot easier to get into The White Stripes.

"Seven Nation Army" is one of those songs that pulls you in with a simple repeated "bass" line and a thumping drum beat. It could not be more simple. Two musicians playing a simple riff. But simple doesn't mean bad. In this case, simple becomes genius. It's a riff that is repeated over and over throughout the song, and you can't get enough of it. It invades your brain much in the same way that "Copacabana" by Barry Manilow does, but with a much more satisfying result.

I put bass in quotations above because it actually isn't a bass playing the line, it's a guitar string octaved down to make it sound like a bass. Just like the vocals, which are distorted just enough to give you the feeling like you may be listening to him singing from another room with the door cracked open. That's the thing with The White Stripes. There are only two of them playing, and so much is simple about their playing and production, but then there are all these other, more complicated, layers. Jack White is an underrated guitar player because so many people see just the simplicity and can't appreciate the other layers he brings to the table.

Lyrically, there's much discussion about what the song means, but I'm in the camp that says it's in response to fame and imitation. Jack White is one of those musicians that doesn't much care for the fame that comes with being famous. He wants to make his music, and appreciates that fame enables him to do that, but it's the trappings of that fame that he is railing against. The people that want to take what he does and take it as their own.

And if I catch it coming back my way
I'm gonna serve it to you
And that ain't what you want to hear
But that's what I'll do
And the feeling coming from my bones
Says find a home

I think Jack watches some idiot teenager wearing red, black and white, with dyed black hair down the streets of Manhattan much the same way that Kurt Cobain watched flannel shirts go down the runway in Bryant Park's fashion shows. I'm sure there were a flurry of curse words in both scenarios. There are lots of lines that talk about going back home, and I think the frustration is clear. He just wants to go back to where he was before the fame (and all that comes with it) became something he had to deal with.

The ultimate irony is that this song went on to become The White Stripes' most popular song off of their breakthrough album. It's so popular that fans are chanting the guitar riff at soccer games all over Europe. So the song that talks about the frustrations of imitators and being famous actually propelled the band into more recognition and fame. Bummer, dude. But what an awesome song. So stay pissed off, Jack, 'cause that's when you're at your best.

(Fun Fact #72: The name "Seven Nation Army" actually comes from a seven year-old Jack thinking that was the name of the Salvation Army.)

81. Anthrax & Public Enemy - Bring the Noise

I don't think I consciously picked this song to do right after the major downer of "Joe," but I'm glad it's here. I need a palate cleanser in a serious way. You don't get more cleansing than the combination of Anthrax and Public Enemy. It was the 90's version of Aerosmith and Run DMC, a combination that seemed to come out of a strange pair of musical dice. This is also a nice song, because it allows me to put Public Enemy (who definitely deserves to be on this list), as well as Anthrax, (who probably doesn't, to be brutally honest) on my list with one song. A twofer, if you will.

While this version is intended to be humorous in many places, the original Public Enemy version is anything but. It's an indictment of the critics who say that rap isn't real music as well as a rallying call to the black community to rise against its oppressors (well, to a certain degree...) But Chuck D, who originally didn't take Anthrax's request to do a joint version very seriously, found out that Scott Ian, one of Anthrax's guitarists, was a huge Public Enemy fan and often wore PE shirts at concerts.

Once he was convinced, though, the metal/rap gap was bridged and they teamed up for a kick-ass "cover" version. The song grabs you hard and fast and never lets you go, as do many of Anthrax's songs. It's a "play the guitar as fast as you can hope the singer can keep up" kind of song. If you compare the tempo of the two, you'll see that Anthrax has seriously upped the BPMs. It seems that Chuck has even upped the intensity, along with the speed, of his lyrics. He rips through lines like:

Follow for now, power of the people, say,
Make a miracle, d, pump the lyrical
Black is back, all in, were gonna win
Check it out, yeah yall cmon, here we go again

without any trace of irony that he's doing this song with a bunch of white metalheads who love rap. That's what makes this performance great. Both Chuck and the boys in Anthrax get the inherent irony of white guys playing black music, but they don't really care. If it was good enough for Elvis...

Once Chuck finishes his two verses, the self-described PE nut, guitarist Scott Ian, becomes lead singer Scott Ian for his verses. This time, though, they embrace the humor of the situation and let it show in the lyrics:

Whatcha gonna do? Rap is not afraid of you
Beat is for Sonny Bono, beat is for Yoko Ono
Run-DMC first said a deejay could be a band
Stand on its own feet, get you out your seat
Beat is for Eric B and LL as well, hell
Wax is for Anthrax, still I can rock bells
Ever, forever, universal it will sell
Time for me to exit, Terminator X-it

Then there's the typical silly Anthrax bridge before Scott finishes up, followed by Charlie doing some nice hip-hop drum work on the way out to finish up the song.

Anthrax has always been a fun band, and this song is a testament to that, but the fact that hard assed Mr. Serious, Chuck D, was a fun guy as well is a pleasant surprise. I always like surprises.

82. Jude Cole - Joe

I would say almost all of the songs on this list would be familiar to someone who has a pretty good knowledge of popular music of the last forty years. They tend to be popular songs that lots of people know. There's a reason these songs are/were popular - they're good! I know a lot of musical purists will say that popularity is the death of talent to a certain degree, but that can't argue away The Beatles, can it? Or even Mozart. Sure, you get your Gerardo and "Rico Suave" that was wildly popular, but for the most part, popular music is popular because it's good and lots of people can relate to it and enjoy it. So I'm not going to surprise you too much with these songs.

But this song is different. Jude Cole is a name most people don't know. He had a top 20 hit in 1990 with his song, "Baby It's Tonight" but that was his only real hit. I got the album that song was on, A View From 3rd Street, and really loved it. So when he came out with other albums, I got them and loved them, too. #83, "Joe," is from his fourth album, I Don't Know Why I Act This Way, released in 1995, and is perhaps one of the most depressing songs ever written. And I mean that in a good way.

The song is the story of Joe, a veteran, father, and complete asshole. That Cole can assume this character with conviction is a tribute not only to his songwriting ability, but his acting ability, too. The song opens with a simple acoustic guitar, with a piano that just twinkles through the song, almost as if it were an afterthought. But nothing about this song is an afterthought. The lyrics hit you fast and hard:

I go to church on Sunday morning
Come home and beat my wife
My name is Joe, and you know me
I've lived here all of my damn life
What a life

Jude Cole has a wonderful voice, and it makes the fact that he uses it to sing a song like this all the more powerful. You wouldn't expect a voice like his to sing a song like this. This is a Tom Waits song. But that's what makes it powerful. It makes you realize that the Joe in the song could be anyone, not just the grizzled loner who lives with his dog down the street.

Musically, the song retains the acoustic guitar and piano, only adding some toned down drums and the occasional wail of a trumpet, keeping you focusing on what Jude wants you to focus on, the blistering lyrics. He paints a portrait of a man who's seen his share of horrible things, and done them, too. Joe is a man who lives according to what he's told. You turn 18, you go to the army. You get back from the war. Then you get married. Buy the house. Kids are next. Joe's life is one of expectations, and he's falling short all over the place, because the expectations aren't his.

The thing that's scary about Joe is how close any of us could be to going down that path. Become traumatized from a war, or a tragic loss, get fired, have your wife leave you. Because all of us men could possibly become Joe if we let circumstances get the best of us.

Just in case the song wasn't dark enough for you, Joe continues:

Some nights I go down to the basement
With thoughts I do not understand
A purple heart and a loaded pistol
And I just hold 'em
Hold 'em in my hands

"Joe" isn't a song that you're going to tap your feet to. You're not going to put it on your "Party" playlist on your Ipod. It's a song in the same way that "Fight Club" is a movie. It's meant to make you think, and think hard. That's why it's on this list, because I just can't stop thinking about it, and it's been almost fifteen years since I first heard it.

(Fun Fact #331 - The voice who speaks the lyrics throughout the verses should sound familiar. It's Jude Cole's good friend and business partner, actor Kiefer Sutherland.)

I have to apologize to Jude Cole for the YouTube video below, because it makes it seem that Joe is Kiefer Sutherland's song. But it's the only one of "Joe" on there, so I didn't have much choice.)

83. The All American Rejects - Swing Swing

In putting together this list, I've tried to avoid putting in songs from the last few years because I didn't want the fact that they were newer and fresher to cloud my judgment against other songs that I may have heard dozens of times over the years. "Swing Swing" by The All American Rejects is one of the more recent songs on this list and I put it on because it was just too good to let my bias against newer songs keep it off.

The All American Rejects are a band from Oklahoma that have been lumped in the pop-punk genre, but I think their style is much more sophisticated than that. In just this song, you can hear influences from the punk movement, sure, but you can also hear echoes of The Cure, The Cars, and even classic rock from the 60's and 70's with the Hammond organ they use. There's a complexity to their songwriting and instrumentation that a lot of their contemporaries can't claim.

"Swing Swing" starts with that lifting Hammond organ that make you think this may be a Steve Winwood song or something. But then the more punk sounding guitar chops in, letting you know that this is a song unlike anything you've heard before. They added elements of punk, pop, rock and reggae all into a blender and this song is what came out. The melody pegs this song as a pure pop song, but all the other elements add a sonic depth that make it much harder to dismiss. There's even an almost hair-metal guitar refrain during the last bridge that almost remind me of an Iron Maidenish sound. Yet another musical influence to throw into the blender.

The way lead singer Tyson Ritter sings this song is very reminiscent of Robert Smith of The Cure. But in the chorus, he adds a soaring lift to his vocals that remind me more of U2's Bono. I like that he blends styles vocally since the instrumentation of the song is a blend of other styles as well.

The lyrics are about a guy who's heart has been broken and who wonders if it will ever be whole again. We've all been there.

Swing, swing
From the tangles of
My heart is crushed By a former love
Can you help me find a way
To carry on again?

But in contrast to depressing odes to a broken heart, the Rejects focus on the future - a hopefully brighter future.

Dreams cast into the sky
I'm moving on
Sweet beginnings do arise
She knows I was wrong
The notes are old
They bend, they fold
And so do I to a new love

"Swing Swing" shows us that there's a light at the end of even the darkest tunnels and that as long as you keep focusing on getting through it, better days await you. It's a concept that I've lived in my life and I can say from experience that the new love you may find can be more fulfilling than you ever thought it could be. So that could be part of the reason why this song speaks to me so strongly. It's something that I've lived in my life and I'm better for it. And isn't that the purpose of all good songwriting? The songwriters get you to think that they're writing the soundtrack to your life. So "Swing Swing" is definitely on my life's mix tape, and I'm happy to have it there.

I'll also put the link for the official video:


84. Abba - Take a Chance on Me

Until the Mama Mia! musical, Abba always got a bad rap for being a crap band who only wrote disco songs. And since the tremendous backlash against disco still hasn't been forgotten (who still has their DISCO SUCKS! t-shirt?), a band worthy of attention still gets snickers from the unbelievers. But Abba was a very prolific band that had more than a dozen Top 40 US singles even before the musical. The song that I think is their best is #84, "Take a Chance on Me."

The song grabs you from the very start. The two female lead singers, Anni-Frid and Agnetha start it out, with the men, Bjorn and Benny coming in with the staccato "Take a chance, take-a take-a chance chance" to give the opening tremendous depth. The vocal talents of all four are especially evident in this part. The fact that a band had four top quality singers in it is a fact that is often overlooked. Each of the four could be a lead singer in their own band (and they were, after the band split in the early 80's).

The guys were the driving force behind the songwriting and production behind all of Abba's music. They gave this song a more restrained instrumental track, since the vocal performances were so strong. That was the genius of these two. They knew what they had in every song and did what they needed to do to elevate each individual song. For "Take a Chance on Me," the chorus and verses almost seem like they were from different songs that they decided to put together in a single song. Then they added a brilliant bridge that pulls both together and makes it a great song.

Lyrically, Abba was always a little corny for my tastes (#84 greatest song ranking nonwithstanding), and this song is no exception.

If you need me, let me know, gonna be around
If you've got no place to go, if you're feeling down
If you're all alone when the pretty birds have flown
Honey I'm still free
Take a chance on me

Originally, I thought this was a positive song about trying to get the person you're interested in to give you a shot at a deeper relationship. But upon further lyrical review, it becomes clear that it's a much sadder proposition. The lines about "if you've got no place to go" and "honey I'm still free" show a desperation of an unrequited love that has turned a little sad. It's like saying, "After you've exhausted all other romantic options and you still don't have anyone, I'll be your last resort. Come on, take a chance on your last resort!" It's like all the people who didn't realize how much of a stalker torch song "Every Breath You Take" was and played it at their wedding.
Benny and Bjorn went to much deeper territory than most people gave them credit for.

But what it all comes back to is the stunning vocal performances from all four band members. The song has been covered tons of times and I think a big reason for that is that it's just so much fun for a talented singer to let loose on. I think Erasure's 1992 version is the best, where Andy Bell's vocals really shine in a tribute to the original. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, countless musicians have given their thumbs up to the Swedish Beatles. Me, too.

(Fun Fact (and embarrassing disclosure) #73 - The band's name comes from the first initial of each band member's first name: Anni-Frid, Bjorn, Benny and Agnetha. The embarrassing part is that I was listening to the band for a dozen years before that even occurred to me.

Fun Fact #112 - If you have the third season DVD set of "The Office," check out the fourth episode, called "Launch Party." Near the end, Andy and his acapella band Here Comes Treble serenade Angela with our #84. Check out the link to the Andy Singing Youtube video below, it's near the end. Once again, if "The Office" says a song is cool...)

The record company wouldn't let Youtube embed the video in my post, but you can use the link below to watch the video. There's also the Andy singing video below that.

The Abba video


The Andy video

85. The Verve - Bittersweet Symphony

Usually when you talk about sampling and music, you're talking about rap and hip-hop artists and what they do with other people's music. With this song, however, it's a British pop band sampling another British rock band. There's a lot of controversy about the sampling used and how much of it was used and who should get the songwriting credit and, more importantly, the money. It's a much more complicated story than I ever thought.

For "Bittersweet Symphony," The Verve used a Rolling Stones song called "The Last Time." I'm a research nut sometimes, so I went through my Rolling Stones albums and sure enough, found this song among what I had. Since I wasn't familiar with this one, I gave it a listen. Then I listened to it again. I get that the chord progression in the two songs is the same, but the Rolling Stones version has a twangy, bluesy feel and sounds nothing like The Verve's version. I couldn't understand what all the hoopla was about.

Then, in doing more research, the hoopla is not about the Stones version of "The Last Time." It's about a cover that the Andrew Oldham Orchestra did of "The Last Time." This song was a bit harder to track down, but I found it and gave it a listen. A-ha! Now I see what the problem may be. It's really close to The Verve's version instrumentally. The Verve took a major section and then added sonic layers to give it a more complex feel, but it really is stunningly similar. Now the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version is an instrumental, so you've got to give Richard Ashcroft, the lead singer and writer of the lyrical melody for "Bittersweet Symphony," credit for the work he did to take this obscure Rolling Stones song to an entire new level, musically and in popularity.

The musical changes The Verve made really do add a depth of sound as well as a cleaner feel to the version that they were sampling. And since I'm always a fan of good, clean production, it's nice to see how they took something that sounded throwaway (no offense to your production values, Andrew) and made it sound really good. It also shows talent to take something like this and transform it into something else, making it your own in the process. So I guess that's where I stand on this one. Yeah, The Verve sampled something pretty hardcore, but they made it so much better than the original that it completely eclipses it, and that is no easy task.

It's a bittersweet symphony, that's life
Trying to make ends meet
You're a slave to money then you die

Those lyrics are pretty grim. Most of the lyrics in the song are. It's an attitude that has been around middle and lower class Britain for decades. The feeling of grinding and grinding your whole life just to get somewhere and finding out that you're still pretty much in the starting blocks. There's a desperation to the lyrics that really brings another level of depth to the song. Ashcroft also has the "harmony" to the song be an almost atonal monotone, echoing the lyrics that are being sung. The lyrics try to get more positive, but it's a constant battle of "I can change/I can't change." It's also interesting to see the lyrics become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the band ended up having to give all of their publishing income to Jagger/Richards, even though their song sounds nothing like the Stones' version.

But songwriting controversy/credit aside, this is still a great song. In 2005's Live 8 concert, Coldplay was doing their own set when they started playing "Bittersweet Symphony." Chris Martin called Richard Ashcroft "the best singer and the world" and said the song "was probably the greatest song ever written." So who am I to disagree?

(There are two videos for this one. The first is just the regular song, and the second is Coldplay's Live8 performance.)