To kick off the substantive part of my month of lists, I figured I’d being where Steven Wilson did, with my 100 favorite songs. This was an interesting exercise, as while there are some common artists and even albums between our two lists, there aren’t any common songs. And, of course, my list has a couple of Steven Wilson-related tracks, whereas his list did not (nor did it have any of mine!). Before we dig in, a few ground rules.
First, when I say “favorites” that is just what I mean. Making a list of “best” anythings when it comes to art is a fool’s errand. These are just songs I really like. I make no claim that you will love them, too.
Second, I didn’t select these as particular best examples of what I love about these bands and artists (although many ended up that way). In other words, there was always going to be a Genesis track on here, but I didn’t select it based on how paradigmatic it was of their glory years, just because I really really love it.
Third, I imposed a limit of one song per band/artist on this list. Even with that, my first go had about 200 songs on it. I thought if we’re really talking “favorites” then let’s keep it as just that. That said, some musicians show up multiple times in different bands.
Finally, I made the executive decision to include as one unit multiple songs that segue into one another. If you can listen to them all in a hunk without a break, I counted them as one “song.” Is it cheating? No, because it’s my list and my rules!
So, on with the show. In alphabetical order by song title . . .
“3 Years Older, “ by Steven Wilson from Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015): A perfect blending of Wilson’s prog side and his penchant for memorable pop/rock hooks.
“Almost Medieval,” by The Human League from Reproduction (1979): Rough, early synth pop. All the grit and fuzz of early synths without the slick finish the 1980s would bring. How can you not love a song about a gibbet, anyway?
“Another Murder of the Day,” by Tony Banks (w/Fish) from Still (1991): A sort of “what if?” track, with Fish providing lyrics and vocals. Imagine Calling All Stations with him on board?
“The Ballad of Jenny Ledge,” by Toy Matinee from Toy Matinee (1990): The most fully brilliant result of the brief collaboration between producer extraordinaire Patrick Leonard and the gone-too-soon Kevin Gilbert (another Calling All Stations “what if?”).
“La Ballata de S’lopsoa ‘e Mannorri,” by DFA from 4th (2008): DFA’s muscular Canterbury-influenced prog is taken to another level by the collaboration with a female vocal group on this folk-inspired tune.
“Bass Folk Song,” by Return to Forever from Return to the Seventh Galaxy (1996): Furious bass-led fusion, with lots of juice distorted electric piano to boot.
“Beat Box Guitar,” by Adrian Belew from Side One (2004): An infectious mix of electronics and guitar heroism. Nominated for a Grammy, even!
“Between the Wheels,” by Rush from Grace Under Pressure (1984): An overlooked gem, in my opinion. Love Alex’s solo.
“Bring Out the Sun (So Alive),” by Von Hertzen Brothers from Love Remains the Same (2008): Love the way this one builds to about the halfway point, then shifts gears and does it all again.
“Canto Nomande Per un Prigioniero Politico,” by Banco from Io Sono Il Libero (1973): Banco at their lush, romantic best.
“A Cat With Seven Souls,” by Steve Hogarth & Richard Barbieri from Not the Weapon But the Hand (2012): Love the combination of Barbieri’s gauzy atmospherics and H’s voice.
“Catwalk,” by Oblivion Sun from Oblivion Sun (2007): As an author, how can I not be a huge fan of a song about someone helping out the Cheshire Cat with a story? Oh, and that slinky Minimoog solo, too.
“Celebrity,” by I Am the Manic Whale from Things Unseen (2020): An epic that manages both to make fun of artsy “competition” reality shows, while showing genuine respect for the people who are good enough to do well on them.
“Chat Show,” by Sanguine Hum from Now We Have Light (2015): The central track on a concept album about the buttered cat phenomenon. Top that!
“Cinema Show,” by Genesis from Seconds Out (1977): My favorite performance of my favorite hunk of classic Genesis. They didn’t get better than this.
“The Clever Use of Shadows,” by Nathan Mahl from The Clever Use of Shadows (1999): Deeply cynical lyrics and amazing keyboard parts. What more do you need?
“Close to the Edge,” by Yes from Yessongs (1973): The definitive version of the band’s definitive song (if you ask me). Carries some extra energy from the studio version (although it lacks Bill Bruford).
“Closet Chronicles,” by Kansas from Two for the Show (1978): A great (and sad) story song carried along by some amazing playing. The live version rules.
“Clownhead,” by Dreadnaught from The American Standard (2001): I don’t really know what a “clownhead” is (a descendant of Krusty?) but I love this weird, off-kilter album closer regardless.
“The Crane Wife 1, 2, & 3,” by The Decembrists from We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (2012): Spread across the studio album of the same name, I love hearing it all from stem to stern.
“Day of the Cow 1 > Snowcow > Day of the Cow 2,” by Mike Keneally from Hat (1992): A perfect encapsulation of Keneally – weird, fun, and amazingly musical. Should I mention it’s about a bovine apocalypse?
“De Futura,” by Magma from Udu Wudu (1976): Now this is an apocalypse! The last half is basically the same riff over and over getting just slightly faster until the whole thing feels like it’s going to spin apart (in a good way).
“Deus ex Machina,” by Deus ex Machina from Deus ex Machina (1992): It’s a band name, it’s an album name, it’s a song name! And everything’s in Latin – what’s not to love!
“Dixie Chicken,” by Little Feat from Waiting for Columbus (1978): I love a great story song and they don’t come much better than this. The live version gets the nice Dixieland break from the Tower of Power horns.
“The Dream,” by Robert Cray from Showdown! (1985): Best line in a blue song ever: “When I reached out to hold her / Oh, I woke my wife instead!”
“Driving to Amsterdam,” by Khan from Space Shanty (1972): Loosy, jammy goodness. If this is what a “Nederlander dream” sounds like, I’m on board.
“Les etudes d’organism,” by Thinking Plague from In Extremis (1998): 14 minutes of pure weirdness, punctuated with ambient and symphonic beauty. Dark beauty, but still.
“Even Less,” by Porcupine Tree from Recordings (2001): This is the full version, not the first half as it appeared on Stupid Dream. I like the dreamy interlude in the middle and the recapitulation in the end.
“Felona > Le solitudine di chi protegge il mondo > L’iquillibiro,” by Le Orme from Felona y Sorona (1973): Light, graceful Italian goodness. An alt-universe ELP that admired Renaissance instead of Hendrix.
“Fitter Stoke Has a Bath,” by Hatfield and the North from Rotter’s Club (1975): I’m also a sucker for songs about musicians, particularly ones like this, that try to rub some of the glamour off their image.
“Free Will and Testament,” by Robert Wyatt from Shleep (1997): “What kind of spider understand arachnophobia?” I dunno, Robert, but it’s worth pondering.
“Games Without Frontiers,” by Peter Gabriel from Peter Gabriel (Melt) (1980): When I was young I thought the French refrain was “she’s so funky.” That kind of works, anyway, you know?
“Go!,” by Public Service Broadcasting from The Race for Space (2015): Not the “best” song from this album (I’d go with “Sputnik”), but this one makes me giddy every time. The newsreel clips are spliced up here expertly.
“The Gooberville Ballroom Dancer,” by Beardfish from The Sane Day (2005): “He was a filthy motherfucker by the name of Dwight” – hell of a first line, particularly when it’s your opening tune at your first American prog festival!
“Head Over Heels > Broken,” by Tears for Fears from Songs from the Big Chair (1985): It says something when the third (or fourth?) hit from an album is this good.
“Hell’s Kitchen> Lines in the Sand,” by Dream Theater from Falling Into Infinity (1997): I know this isn’t Dream Theater’s most loved album (and rightly so), but these two tracks work really well together, the jammy instrumental turning into a solid tune, with a great chord progression in the chorus (and King’s X’s Doug Pinnick!).
“Hereafter,” by The Dregs from Bring ‘em Back Alive (1992): Not that the Dregs didn’t frequently blaze, but I really love this laidback jam.
“Hibou, Anemone and Bear,” by Soft Machine from Volume 2 (1969): Fuzzed bass, many woodwind overdubs, and lyrical silliness. My preferred variant of Soft Machine.
“Hostsejd,” by Anglagard from Epilog (1994): My first exposure to the amazing retro-symph prog from Sweden that helped kick off prog’s third wave.
“I Dream of Wires,” by Gary Numan from Telekon (1980): It took me many listens before I realized that this song is about an electrician worried about remaining employed in a wired world. I always figured it was about synth patch chords.
“Idioteque,” by Radiohead from Kid A (2000): Speaking of synth patch chords. Officially the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen performed on Saturday Night Live.
“Impressioni di settembre,” by PFM from Storia di un Minuto (1972): My first impression (so to speak) of Italian prog. That Minimoog solo!
“In Earnest,” by The Tangent from A Place In the Queue (2006): My favorite epic of the modern prog era. The last verse chokes me up still.
“In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” by Roxy Music from For Your Pleasure (1973): Roxy’s not really my thing, but this mix of weirdo confession that explodes into rock and roll goodness is great.
“In the Dead of Night > By the Light of Day > Presto Vivace & Reprise,” by UK from UK (1978): Prog’s last gasp in the 1970s, really – but what a gasp.
“Intentions Clear,” by Umphrey’s McGee from The Bottom Half (2007): For an odds and sods collection, this is a pretty good album. I prefer this version to the “real” one on Safety In Numbers.
“Internal Exile,” by Fish from Internal Exile (1991): Fish’s love song to his native Scotland, in which I hear lots of echoes of West Virginia (in the bridge, particularly).
“The Invisible Man,” by Marillion from Marbles (2004): This is what modern Marillion is all about – layers of sound for days, atmosphere all about, with H’s emotive vocal on the top.
“Invisible Sun,” by The Police from Ghost in the Machine (1981): Favorite song by The Police. Simple as that.
“Judas Unrepentant,” by Big Big Train from English Electric, Vol. 1 (2012): I’ve written about this song before. I love me songs about interesting criminals.
“King of Number 33,” by DeExpus from King of Number 33 (2011): Another song about an interesting criminal, but this time one who is completely out of his mind. Delusion and nifty solos across 25 or so minutes.
“Lady Fantasy,” by Camel from Mirage (1974): The instrumental workout in the last half of this it just peak Camel. They did not better, IMHO.
“Le Fantome de M.C. Escher,” by Miridor from Mekano! (2001): If there’s such a thing as “fun” avant garde prog, Miriodor is it. That said, the way this ends in an unholy mishmash of noise kind of makes you wonder.
“Liberty City,” by Jaco Pastorious from The Birthday Concert (1995): Jaco with a big band in full song filling his sails.
“Life During Wartime,” by Talking Heads from Stop Making Sense (1984): Rampant paranoia with a driving beat.
“Lochs of Dread,” by Bela Fleck & the Flecktones from Live Art (1996): A banjo player grooving on a reggae riff, held down by his synth-drum drummer and a guest on bass clarinet. If that doesn’t define all that’s great about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, I don’t know what does (great title, too).
“Man-Erg,” by Van der Graff Generator from Pawn Hearts (1971): Musically and lyrically the best VdGG ever did. Hopeful and frightening in equal measure.
“Memetic Pandemic,” by 3rDegree from The Long Division (2012): The highlight of 3rDegree’s political opus.
“Microdeath Softstar,” by Phideaux from Doomsday Afternoon (2007): In some ways it’s a theme song for the modern age (written 15 years ago).
“Moonwalk,” by Moon Safari from The Gettysburg Address (2012): The first song of the first set released where I was in the room when it was recorded. Good tune, too.
“Neon Lights,” by Kraftwerk from The Man-Machine (1977): Kraftwerk’s “Cinema Show,” if you will – starts off with a pleasant enough song section, before transitioning into an extended instrumental coda.
“New Holy Ground,” by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark from History of Modern (2010): Few bands get back together decades later and produce new stuff worth listening to. They’ve done it a lot.
“No Sign of Yesterday,” by Men at Work from Cargo (1983): It’s like melancholy set music. With a nifty guitar solo in the end.
“No Thugs In Our House,” by XTC from English Settlement (1982): I had a conversation once with a client’s mother. She had no idea why her son was spending years in a federal prison. This song makes me think of her.
“On Reflection,” by Gentle Giant from Playing the Fool (1977): I chose the live version of this song because they take apart the original, rearrange it, and make the end product even more jaw-droppingly impressive to perform it live.
“One of Our Submarines,” by Thomas Dolby (1982): Inspired by a true family story (as I understand it). Better than anything that was actually on The Golden Age of Wireless (which is excellent).
“Out In the Darkness,” by Martin Orford (w/Steve Thorne) from The Old Road (2008): Atheists need anthems, too. Particularly in times like these.
“Oxygene, pt. 2,” by Jean-Michel Jarre from Oxygene (1976): Where things really get moving in this electronic classic.
“Poisoned Youth,” by England from Garden Shed (1977): England were not particularly original in the context of 1970s prog, but they put all the pieces together in a pretty satisfying way in this epic.
“Present from Nancy,” by Supersister from Present from Nancy (1970): Canterbury wasn’t just an English thing, as these Dutch boys prove. With a dash of Zappa here and there.
“Racing In A,” by Steve Hackett from Please Don’t Touch (1978): One of my earliest favorites (thanks to my brother), which breaks off from a full-throated song into a solo nylon-string guitar outro.
Recycled Side 1 by Nektar from Recycled (1975): Okay, this really is cheating, but these seven songs all run together, honest (as do the four on side two). Larry Fast’s synth programming really elevated these guys.
“Remurdered,” by Mogwai from Rave Tapes (2014): Love Mogwai in general, but really love it when they dig into the electronic sounds, as in here.
“S.A.L.T.,” by The Orb from Orblivion (1997): The unhinged preaching film clips (from the Mike Leigh movie Naked) are almost enough to put this on the list, but the way the beats and soundscapes get deeper and more paranoid as the go along really sells it. “Do you ever get a feeling your being followed?”
“Safe In Hell,” by The Bears from Car Caught Fire (2001): Leave it to Adrian Belew and crew to take an alternative look at half of the afterlife.
“Seven Is a Jolly Good Time,” by Egg (1969): If prog had a theme song, how could it not be this single (which sank without a trace upon release) that extols the joys of playing in odd time signatures? Still stunned no band has whipped this out at a prog festival.
“The Seventh House,” by IQ from The Seventh House (2000): A perfect epic of World War I loss and remembrance. Still don’t quite know what the “seventh house” is, though.
“Sheep,” by Pink Floyd from Animals (1977): It’s all about that chord progression from Gilmour in the end. And the tinkly electric piano from Wright in the beginning.
“Solar Musick Suite,” by Steve Hillage from Fish Rising (1975): Hillage’s stuff seems to uncoil like a snake, solid but ever shifting.
“Some Memorial,” by echolyn from echolyn (Window) (2012): It starts sort of wistful and cynical, but builds into a climax with some of my favorite lyrics about the end of things.
“Soterargarten 1,” by Gosta Berlngs Saga from Glue Works (2011): Uses repetition to great effect, building up to the amazing ending.
“Squarer for Maud,” by National Health from Of Queues and Cures (1978): Maybe my favorite bit of Canterbury ever. Another song that goes one direction, breaks for something completely different (spoken word interlude!), then gets to business.
“St. Elmo’s Fire,” by Brian Eno from Another Green World (1975): A very good lush pop tune becomes great with Eno’s decision to let Robert Fripp rip right through it from time to time.
“Stander on the Mountain,” by Bruce Hornsby from Here Come the Noisemakers (2000): The older I get, the more this story of faded glories and the people who can’t let them go sticks with me.
“Starless,” by King Crimson from Red (1974): Another one (like “Cinema Show” and “Neon Lights”) that starts as a “song” proper and then slides into a feverish instrumental final. How long does Fripp play that one note?
“Surrender,” by Cheap Trick from At Buddokan (1979): High point of the best side of pure rock and roll ever recorded? I’d say yes.
“Telephasic Workshop,” by Boards of Canada from Music Has a Right to Children (1998): Trip hop and burbly synths. I love that I can listen to this and not have the first idea of how it’s really made.
“The Doorway,” by Spock’s Beard from Beware of Darkness (1996): I love those first five Beard albums (I got in on the ground floor, sort of) and this exemplifies why.
“There’s Something On Your Mind,” by BB King (w/Etta James) from Blues Summit (1993): Great duet by two giants who are no longer with us, sold with all their heart and soul.
“Thick as a Brick,” by Jethro Tull from Thick as a Brick (1972): Technically an entire album, I guess? It’s just one long song broken across two LP sides. Would have to make it for the fake newspaper artwork, regardless.
“Toujours plus à l’est,” by Univers Zero from Live (2006): What did I say earlier about “fun” avant garde stuff? UZ has done much denser and darker stuff, but I love this spritely little thing. Dig the clarinet!
“Trilogy,” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer from Trilogy (1972): My favorite synthesis of ELP’s push/pull struggle between Greg Lake’s romantic balladry and Keith Emerson’s keyboard pyrotechnics.
“Vertiges,” by Present from Barbarro (ma non troppo) (2009): This makes the list for the thundering piano runs up and down the keyboard.
“Village of the Sun > Echidna’s Arf (of You) > Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?,” by Zappa from Roxy & Elsewhere (1974): Everything I love about Zappa – a silly song (although not as silly as usual) followed by mind-blowing musical workouts. It’s a whole side, yes, but it goes by in a flash.
“Warriors,” by Synergy from Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975): Probably my favorite “composed” bit of electronica. I could see this transcribe for a human ensemble very easily. All done with a single Minimoog and a Mellotron.
“Whalehead,” by Moth Vellum from Moth Vellum (2007): This album has grown and grown in esteem for me over the years.
“What Looks Good On the Outside,” by Animal Logic from Animal Logic II (1991): It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from the rhythm section of The Police & Return to Forever, but it’s some seriously good grown-up pop.
“With a Car Like That You Must Be Knee Deep In Whores,” by Forever Einstein from Down With Gravity (2000): It’s here for the title, yes, although it’s a groovy little tune. Don’t worry, it’s instrumental!
“World Through My Eyes,” by RPWL from World Through My Eyes (2005): This makes the list mostly for the awesome synth solo that resolves into the guitar solo near the end. Sublime stuff.
“Yellow Submarine,” by The Beatles from Revolver (1966): I probably loved this movie before I really digested The Beatles’ music. Good way to wrap things up.
Here are some fun facts about this list.
- The list covers 54 years, from 1966 (The Beatles) to 2020 (I am the Manic Whale)
- Decade breakdown: 1960s (3) – 1970s (33) – 1980s (10) – 1990s (19) – 2000s (22) – 2010s (13) – 2020s (1)
- There’s a cluster of great live albums there from 1977 to 1979
- The musician most represented on the list (I think) is keyboard maestro Dave Stewart, who was a key member of Egg, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, as well as playing with Steve Hillage in Kahn and on his first solo record
- My absolute top favorite? Not going to say! It’s been hard enough to whittle things down to 100!
Next week, let’s talk movies.