Today’s post is a crossover Top 100 Everything and Mixtape post. It’s a playlist of 20 of my favorite songs by artists who did not make my the Top 100 or the Honorable Mentions. I tried to focus on “one-hit wonders” — artists or bands whose playtime in my headphones is dominated by one song — but ended up just writing about songs I felt needed to be a part of my “Top 100” in some capacity.
The songs are ranked, somewhat loosely, by my preference for the song. As with all Mixtape posts, I’ve included a Spotify playlist.
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
The greatest American pop song: A sonic epic that brings listeners through forests of love and swamps of betrayal by the fiery light of Gaye’s heart. The chorus sneaks up on you like a swarm of killer bees, by which I mean you can feel it buzzing before you can hear it. Gaye’s tremendous vocal performance is lifted by the multilayered background parts, from strings to voices to funky drums. Just a masterpiece.
“You’re the One That I Want” – John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John
I really think that this song from the Grease soundtrack is a lights-out, fantastic, all-time great pop song. It’s one of my favorites ever. Travolta and Newton-John give stunning, intense vocal performances. Newton-John in particular is expressive and seductive. The production is busy but hooky, and there’s an effervescent joy and infatuation to the song that carries as well the hundredth time as it does the first time.
“She Drives Me Crazy” – The Fine Young Cannibals
Every once in a long while, you’ll hear a song that sounds so different and fresh that it defies the neat genre boxes you’d be tempted to put it in. Even more rare is the song that manages to be that different AND also incessantly, tremendously great. “She Drives Me Crazy” is one of those few: Roland Gift’s falsetto vocals pair well with an infectious beat powered by a distinct snare drum pop and flashes of guitar.
“I Think We’re Alone Now” – Tommy James and the Shondells
Lester Bangs called it “the bubblegum apotheosis.” Eight years before Bruce wrote “Born to Run,” Tommy James gave us the sonic essence of escape and passion. But where Bruce saw love as a noisy motorcycle ride, the Shondells saw it as a breathless run through the woods, full of sweet whispered nothings.
“Go All the Way” – The Raspberries
A perfect song. The Raspberries launched an entire genre (power pop) with one passionate, sexy, transcendent single. There’s a little bit of The Beatles here, some Byrds, but also something more youthful and earnest and hormonal. Sorry, Katy Perry, this is the real teenage dream.
“Like a Prayer” – Madonna
“Like a Prayer” is a powerful song, blending religious and sexual imagery over an incredible dance track. The production adds to the spiritual feeling of the lyrics with a booming background choir. The tune is beautiful and melodic, making the song’s six minutes feel half that length. One of the best songs of the ‘80s.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” – Sinead O’Connor
I often use words like “expressive” and “emotional” and “evocative,” but they always carry the implied asterisk that other artists are just Padawans to Jedi Master O’Connor. THIS, folks, this is the single most emotional song I have ever heard. You can’t manufacture the intensity in her voice, the passion and conviction of every second of this masterpiece.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” – Procol Harum
The original lineup of Procol Harum only ever recorded one song, a tectonic, otherworldly piece of psychedelic-progressive-baroque balladry. The lyricist, Keith Reid, dreamed of putting his poetry to music. He found the perfect backing band for his spiritual introspection. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is a mesmerizing, intoxicating song about humanity’s inability to comprehend its own oblivion. Also getting drunk on a boat.
“American Girl” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
I have to quote something Grant wrote about a song (“Summer” by Sum 41) for the first entry in our Mixtape series:
I’m not exactly sure why I love this song so much, except that it sounds like its title like few songs I know.
“American Girl” is tinged with regret yet roars with possibility like an open car window on a cross-country road trip. Even as it appropriates the British Invasion, it reminds us its protagonist was “raised on promises” in a way only Americans can be.
“Hot Stuff”- Donna Summer
“Dancing Queen” is svelte pop bliss, “I Want You Back” makes me want to hop around like a b-boy, and there are plenty of funkier gems, but – as far as I’m concerned – “Hot Stuff” is disco’s magnum opus. It pulses with Donna Summer’s ferocity and sexuality, tense and climactic. The opening riff is the stuff of legends.
“Pale Blue Eyes” – The Velvet Underground
Easily my favorite Velvet song. Here, I get the hype — that Lou Reed changed the way that musicians invoked emotions. Reed is perfect as a wandering romantic, helplessly in love with the wrong person at the wrong time. We’ve all had someone we “thought of as [our] mountaintop,” a love that overshadowed the rest of our life, whether or not his or her eyes were blue.
“I Don’t Love You Anymore” – Bomb the Music Industry!
The ska-ish collective Bomb the Music Industry! delivered a left-field tour de force on their 2007 LP Get Warmer. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” is ostensibly about overcoming alcoholism, but the searing, invigorating performances transcend its premise into a more universal rallying cry: Bust down the barriers: both those set up by the fucking man and those created by our own self-defeating impulses. “IDLYA” is a rare song that’s both fun and important.
“Runaround Sue” – Dion
The incredible Dion DiMucci was a rebellious teen idol from the early ‘60s with a mean blues streak. He brought to life the fantastic, high-energy composition “Runaround Sue” by asking the background singers to sing as if they were a horn part playing the last song at The Apollo. It worked — this is a thrilling entry into the pop-rock pantheon.
“Accidentally in Love” – Counting Crows
Counting Crows’ most upbeat song is infectious pop, but I’ll also freely admit that much of my affection towards it is sentimental. Here is the anthem of my high school summers, and it makes me think of some of my biggest crushes, including the girl I married seven years later.
“Here Without You” – Three Doors Down
This spot could just as well go to Brad Paisley’s “Then” or Lonestar’s “Amazed”… there’s just something about country-flavored ballads that capture eternal, truthful, persistent love. “Here Without You” is moving stuff that never gets old.
“When We First Met” – Hellogoodbye
“When we first met, your hair was long and brown / You hadn’t yet cut it all off / Now it’s long once again / Oh, it’s long once again” — So begins one of the great love songs of my lifetime, a big goofy-hearted tale of long-lasting love told through haircuts. The blistering, grinning energy of the tune (especially that drum break) lifts this lovely composition: “Our love goes on / As our hair grows long.”
“The Wonder of You” – Elvis Presley
I got choked up the first time I heard it. Elvis is one of a kind, a spiritual leader to the higher power of music. One of his finest, most emotional songs, “The Wonder of You” praises fulfilled, giddy romance. They don’t make choruses as moving and intense as this anymore.
“Crazy” – Patsy Cline
Sometimes simplicity does the trick. Patsy Cline delivers maybe country’s greatest song, a heartbroken ballad that’s as flawless as it is understated. Her vocal performance resonates, and the chorus — “I’m crazy for trying / and crazy for crying / and I’m crazy for loving you” — moves me every time.
“Dancing on My Own” – Robyn
One of my favorite songs so far this decade. Like so many great musicians, Robyn feels a little bit out of time, like her aching heart and enormous pipes would have made her a star fifty years ago. I’m not usually one for “electro-ballads” but it’s hard to find any fault with this heartbreaking tune about dancing and crying at the same time.
“Paper Planes” – M.I.A.
File it under “strange” and also “brilliant.” I’m not sure exactly what the hell MIA is talking about, but I know she thinks it’s important, and that turns out to be all that matters. There is conviction and ballsiness in the production, which blends schoolyard chant with gunshot samples and weirdly effective, monotone flow from MIA. I don’t know why, but I can’t get enough.