1. Electric Light Orchestra – “When I Was a Boy”
Jeff Lynn, band leader, is a great songwriter but I think he’s an even better arranger. The way all these instruments come together, while all still being pretty listenable on their own, to create the same effect emotionally is hard to find in other pop or rock music. On top of that, the melody of this song just begs to be sung along with.
2. Queen – “Don’t Stop Me Now”
Speaking of great songwriting, Queen is known for this and other timeless gems. BBC Radio has named this the best driving song of all time and I agree that it’s great for those highway road trips, but even on it’s own you have to admire everyone’s musicianship. You’ve got Freddie Mercury, a legendarily charismatic singer and piano player, but you’ve also got guitarist Brian May with one of his most hummable guitar solos. The rhythm section absolutely shakes it here.
3. The Mamas and the Papas – “Once Was a Time I Thought”
I’ve only just found this 60-second song by the Mamas and Papas recently and I love everything about it: the jumpy rhythm, the nine voices that blend together to sound like two, the steely sound of the acoustic guitar. There’s not much else to it, but I like it that way. The song comes in, keeps your attention for the entirety of a minute and then let’s you carry on with your life.
4. Carmen Twillie, Lebo M. – “Circle of Life”
I know everybody likes The Lion King and Monday Mixers are generally not supposed to show you songs you already love, but I don’t think enough people love this song as much as they should. Yes, Hakuna Matata is a song I can’t get out of my head when I think about it and yes, Elton John sings some of these songs pretty well, and yes it is cool to hear Hans Zimmer make music for something that isn’t by Christopher Nolan but this particular track I think is objectively beautiful for its dynamic range alone. I want you to carefully listen to the long crescendo at the beginning. It builds so subtly it’s hard to even describe it as theatrical. It then quiets down considerably for a flute solo that has such a clear tone you’d think it was played by nature herself. And then it just picks up in volume again with some great percussion that combines your traditional drum kit with some Western classical and ethnic insruments.
5. Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock”
This a song that just sounds what it’s like to have a messy room or to hang out with your friends in your basement. Billy Corgan has a voice so unique it’s immediately recognizable. Combine that with guitars so fuzzy it’ll tickle your ears, and you’ve got the classic Smashing Pumpkins sound that made them so great in the 90’s. It sounds even cooler now with its lo-fi 90’s sound, almost like listening to a VHS or using a crank handle for a car’s window. If you’re wondering what the lyrics are about, Corgan has said they’re supposed to be an attack on hometown Chicago’s indie scene at the time.
6. Melvins – “Honey Bucket”
I love the title of this sludge metal track. No it’s not sweet, but man is it thick. It sounds like what drowning in a giant honey bucket would feel like. The guitars are loud and distorted to eleven but I think it’s the subtle panning that makes the dual attack work so well. In contrast, the drums sound so natural but still wild and ferocious. These things combined make for a uniquely dense assault.
7. Bohicas – “Only You”
I know I am probably overkilling it with the distorted guitars, but they’re only prominent in the intro and here we see an interesting use of it since this song gets pretty light at times. The singer’s laid back style leads to a cool contrast with said guitars. But even without, the song has a cool melody that make the love lyrics not feel cakey. The chorus with the piano and back up singers also creates a pleasant change of pace.
8. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”
Another song that I think is classically beautiful, but this time for more than just dynamics, though they are crazy good. The guitar alone is so dynamic, alternating between soft chord arpeggios with sick licks you’d think were Hendrix if it weren’t for its distinct clear tone. Sometimes it’s dissonant like it is in the intro and sometimes it just plays the classic chords. The solo in the middle is a true testament on how sonically beautiful it can be to let a guitar breathe. As accompaniment, it does so well to mirror the voice that any more instruments really would have ruined this song. As good as it is, it is amazingly only second to the way Buckley sings this song. He whispers and shouts at the right times. You feel every line he sings. For a very repetitive song structure, he sings every “hallelujah” with a different emotion, reflecting the themes of that verse’s lyrics. The last chorus gives me chills when he seems to step out of rhythm, and even out of the song, to yell out “Hallelujah” as a genuinely desperate prayer.
9. Ravi Shankar – “Dádrá”
I love listening to Indian music because it reminds me that music isn’t as universal as most people think. It’s difficult to put Indian music into Western sheet music or even simply talk about it using the vocabulary you learned in your 4th grade music class. If you’re ready to listen to what it’s like to step outside of the four-chords and 4/4 time world, you need to start with Ravi Shankar’s The Sounds of India, an album designed to educate the western world, jumping on the fact that at the time Ravi Shankar was known to the world as George Harrison’s sitair teacher. The coolest part is that there’s even a four minute intro in this album in which Ravi walks you through some basic Indian music listening guidelines.
10. Gamelan Degung – “Sangkala”
Sticking with some world music, gamelan music should be a lot more popular than it is. At the very least we have to get a new hit song that features the gamelan as a percussive instrument. Until then, you should listen to this music in its pure form, which at times even sounds electronic (there’s a low bass sound that I can’t identify). This music shouldn’t be that hard on the ears considering how melodically repetitive the gamelan can be (those bright sounds you hear throughout) and how the woodwind instrument sounds just like any flute.
11. Bob Marley and the Wailers – “Satisfy My Soul”
I had a musician friend of mine once tell me of how excited he was to go to Jamaica to find out what other type of music there was other than Marley. While he did find some cool local jam bands and discovered there were some scenes for other genres, for the most part the country is still listening to Bob Marley. This could be due to a cultural difference in how celebrities are treated, but I think the music he made with the Wailers is just too iconic. Listen to how this song combines both a relaxed rhythm with bright singing and brass. It’s no wonder you still find college dorms with posters of this guy.
12. Los Tigres del Norte – “Jefe de Jefes”
Los Tigres del Norte ( “The tigers of the North” if you translate their name to English) are the quintessential narcocorrido band. Narcocorridos are folk-songs that, while are fun to dance and listen to thanks to taking influence from polka and country music, use the loaded topic of drug traffickers as lyrical content. It can be thought of as the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap because of lyrics glorifying money, power, and violence. While this song is an example of this (it translates to “Bosses of Bosses,” and it talks about how the narrator is the most powerful man around), there are some narcocorrido bands that are all about spreading the truth. In the intro of this song, two men talk about narcocorridos as the music of the people, and this is because there are some songs that talk about real life events and people, such as El Chapo, and try to tell the story that the media and government won’t tell. It’s really interesting to listen to a song that is so politically and culturally charged but still just sounds like a dance song.