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Music

100 From 1977-2003

PopMatters diverse band of merry critics are pleased to bring you their ideas of songs that have influenced whole genres and generations. Indeed, everyone of these songs is a 'classic' in some fashion, and therefore deserving an entry into our hallowed list.

100 FROM 1977 - 2003:
THE BEST SONGS SINCE JOHNNY ROTTEN ROARED
71 - 80
forward to 61-70 >

80 QUEEN
"We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions"
In rock's history, has there ever been another song pairing quite like this? Originally released as separate sides of a 45 (although the album News of the World kicks off with the pair in their legendary back-to-back form), "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" are now so inextricably linked that it's impossible to think of them as anything but one epic, unrelenting piece. If the summon-the-gladiators drum beat doesn't get you, there's Freddie Mercury's aggressive military cadence, and if that doesn't do the trick, there's always the chorus and Brian May's vicious guitar solo -- all followed by a ballad that rivals any of Mercury's best for operatic defiance. If Wayne and Garth had headbanged to this in Wayne's World, their car would have spontaneously combusted. As possibly the most lasting artifact of Queen's legacy, there's a lot to be said about this song (especially the irony of the flamboyantly gay Mercury having his song adopted by super-macho sports culture), but its appeal boils down to one thing. When you hear it in concert or at a sporting event, it's impossible to not get swept away. I don't care how many times you've heard this song on classic rock radio; if you don't get chills when a stadium full of people starts stomping their feet in unison to "We Will Rock You", you're dead.
      � Andrew Gilstrap

79 BIKINI KILL
"Rebel Girl"
As Paul Westerberg slid into dull singer-songwriter catatonia in the 1990s, Kathleen Hannah easily superceded him as a sloppy and seemingly random innovator whose animal instincts and heartfelt songwriting whipped up a new underground. Not only that, she's the Muse behind the top song on this list: Hannah scrawled the phrase "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on a wall after getting Nirvana smashed in 1990. "Rebel Girl" is her greatest achievement, two minutes of lusty anthemic noise which give a kicking to millennia of patriarchal bullshit. Sure, there were precedents in "Don't Dictate", "Bad Reputation", "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!", but this song is different, because it's about dyke desire, joy, and heroism. There is no anger or struggle here, and also no boys. The utopia she creates -- sucking face and trying on clothes with the "queen of the neighborhood" -- swells up with a cocky adolescent intensity that's devoid of turmoil or confusion. Rebel Girl is a hero, not a martyr, and that's what this revolution's all about. "That girl, she holds her head up so high! / I think I wanna be her best friend yeah!" There are at least three different recordings of this song, but when Bikini Kill hit the Avast studio in 1993 with Joan Jett, they recorded the definitive version, mostly because they replace the word "slut" with "dyke" in the song's key moment. Also it's louder, the chorus is a righteous singalong and Tobi Vail's martial drumkit gets the foreground. While grunge has dated terribly since 1991, this song stays fresh, and thank Saint Joan the rebel girls still keep taking over. Hell, just this week 14-year-old dyke Natalie Young got pissed on by her teachers and fellow students for wearing a self-evident "Barbie is a Lesbian" T-shirt to class. Though her mom is doing victim-validation shit like filing suit, every time Natalie shows up on the news you see a strong and self-assured lesbian hero. And in the background we can hear Kathleen Hannah's torrid voice screaming, "In her kiss, I taste the revolution!"
      � Mark Desrosiers

78 JOAN JETT
"I Love Rock and Roll"
I remember skulking down to my basement after elementary school let out and flipping on MTV. I didn't understand about 90% of what I saw there, and Joan Jett was no different. She was a tough, stringy woman who wielded a guitar with all the bravado but none of the schlock of so many of the guy rockers. She nearly scared the crap out of me and into my pants. Luckily, the song kept me together. With a stripped-down beat and a sharp three-chord guitar part, "I Love Rock & Roll" is rock's fiercest ode. When it was first released, the song proved that a woman could not only play hard, but that a woman could be as sexually bold as her male contemporaries. While it's certainly timeless -- show me someone who doesn't still sing along and I'll show you a polka fan -- the song carries with it a certain nostalgia that adds to its charm. Nowhere today can you find a jukebox that plays a song for a dime, or anyone who actually gets up and dances to the rock 'n' roll jukebox. For that reason alone, "I Love Rock & Roll" is a great reminder of why the music is there in the first place.
      � Jonathan Messinger

77 MICHAEL JACKSON
"Beat It"
With 1982's Thriller Michael Jackson made an album that appealed to nearly everyone with its mixture of R&B, soul, adult contemporary, pop, and rock. Jackson's gift was being able to expand the boundaries of each genre just enough to make it appeal to those who didn't normally listen to that particular type of music. There isn't a better example of Jackson's mix 'n' match approach than the hit song "Beat It". Here was Jackson, known primarily as a soul/R&B singer, backed by hard rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen on what was essentially a dance track. In the end, Van Halen made dance music sound tough, and Jackson made hard rock sound soulful and melodic. Meanwhile, the creative, energetic video helped make the song a smash. The calculated crossover resulted in Thriller selling over 40 million copies in its heyday, establishing Jackson as the first true Black male superstar and making production and songcraft priorities in pop music again.
      � Charlotte Robinson

76 MY BLOODY VALENTINE
"Only Shallow"
A crescendo of guitars that hits you like an air-raid siren yet appears and disappears like a wave of the ocean, a woman singing a beautiful melody and enigmatic lyrics in a near-whisper and an overall mood that approximates the space between being asleep and awake . . . these are the building blocks with which My Bloody Valentine created their most overpowering song, the first single from their second and final album Loveless. Vividly capturing an atmosphere in a song is nothing new, but "Only Shallow" had not only the presence and placidity of an Eno-esque mood-piece but the energy and sheer force of the most unleashed form of rock and roll. By putting listeners to sleep while fiercely rocking, MBV not only spawned legions of dream-pop and space-rock groups, they caught the attention of musicians of all types who are interested in pushing their genre in new directions. While the group's knack at painting sonic pictures influenced electronic and hip-hop artists as much as it did rockers, their way of making rock feel more spacious and complex helped pave the way for other adventurous rock musicians to do the same, from the so-called shoe-gazers to Radiohead and onward.
      � Dave Heaton

75 ALANIS MORISSETTE
"You Oughta Know"
With one song, Alanis Morissette not only single-handedly kickstarted the angry-young-women-of-rock movement of the late 1990s, but vindicated any girl whoever took the scissors to a cheating partner's chinos. Almost completely unknown outside her native Canada, the freaky chick with the knee-length hair, the guttural scream and the seemingly unwavering self-confidence was unlike anything audiences had seen since Janis Joplin first took the stage. Singling out Morissette's anthem of revenge was its 20-year-old composer's daring self-exposure and contempt for conservatism. In little over four minutes, the song manages to aptly and eloquently describe the pain of young love gone sour with equal parts maturity and immaturity, strength and weakness, bravado and cowardice. She reassured us it was okay to be jealous, it was okay to be pissed off, to stand up for ourselves, and that nothing cures a broken heart like a spazzed out fit of bitchy rage.
      � Nikki Tranter

74 ELVIS COSTELLO
"Watching the Detectives"
Elvis Costello's first hit off of My Aim Is True, and his only nod to the New Wave reggae sound. Fellow Stiff labelmates the Rumour provide the rhythm section; Adam Boduar's bassline is the very definition of hypnotic menace. If "Allison" is the heart on his Angry Young Man sleeve, "Watching the Detectives" is EC's first stab at social commentary. The lyrics are a kind of voyeuristic passion play in which the watcher and the watched blur and intermingle. Though often interpreted as a commentary on passive consumer society, "Watching the Detectives" also adds a self-conscious twist to Costello's patented sado-misogyny: yes, there's a girl, devastatingly indifferent -- "she looks so good that he gets down and begs". But she's also the voyeur, the untouchable spectator: "she's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake". Something boils over and disrupts that placid surface-something that's not just murder, but self-immolation. While that bassline walks "shivers up and down my spine", the vocals go from threatening to plaintive and back again in the line "Even if it took a miracle to get you to stay it only took my little finger to blow you awaayy ... Just like watching the detectives ... "
      � Margaret Schwartz

73 THE BUGGLES
"Video Killed the Radio Star"
Forget that the Buggles are merely a footnote in history; forget that Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes went on to become successful producers; forget that MTV has degenerated into a morass of reality television based garbage; forget all those things but remember this: The song that launched the music channel into viewers' collective psyches was "Video Killed the Radio Star". Could it have been something else? Absolutely, but the fact remains it wasn't. A modest hit for nearly two years before becoming forever associated with MTV's blast off, the song embodies everything that was the early '80s: skinny ties, synthesizer infused electronica, and of course primitive video footage. Looking back, the video is laughably ancient, but the song still resonates with originality, and reminds us of how daring the concept of all video programming was at the time. No one could have foreseen what MTV was to evolve into as a viewing option and as a marketing tool. For better or worse, every group that parlayed its MTV appearances into album sales owes a debt of gratitude to the Buggles for getting things started. Prophetic? Ironic? Perhaps a bit of both. To a certain degree video did kill the radio star as the industry's artistic focus quickly shifted from musical substance to photogenic style. Whatever the case may be, over two decades have passed since MTV hit the airwaves with its inaugural video clip, and the Buggles hold the distinction of being first in line. Does anyone know who was second? Does anyone care?
      � Adam Williams

72 ELVIS COSTELLO
"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding"
Written by Nick Lowe while he was still a member of Brinsley Schwarz, Costello's version first appeared on 1979's Armed Forces. Catapulted on by Pete Thomas's massive drums and made up equally of exhaustion and a staunch refusal to give up (on people, on ideals, on himself), Costello delivers his naked appeal like it's all he has left. In one breath he's wondering, "Is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?" but you know by the way that he screams out for "sweet harmony" that he's not being the sarcastic smart-ass some would peg him as. The song become something like a rebel yell during this year's war, performed live by Costello on Late Night with David Letterman and covered during live shows by Steve Earle and Yo La Tengo. The Curtis Stigers version, recorded for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992, went on to make it so Nick Lowe never had to worry about one of his albums ever turning a profit again.
      � Jon Langmead

71 MADONNA
"Into the Groove"
I was in fourth grade when Madonna's "Into the Groove" was everywhere. Those triumphant opening synthesizer chords instantly exhorted me to not only dance for inspiration but embrace a totally different lifestyle. That year the song became part of my obsessive compulsive rituals that my mother exasperatedly (and correctly) called "a phase". Every night after dinner, I'd stand on a small bookcase and play the boom box that sat on top of the nearby piano. Boldly eschewing my piano practice, I flipped up and down the dial for hours. The rule was that I had to hear "Into the Groove" at least four times before going to bed. The song brought me luck, made me feel courageous, and, most importantly, confident that the boys at school would like me. Madonna was, of course, the bohemian Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan (1986) and "Into the Groove" was the signature song from the soundtrack. The film and song fit neatly into the role that Madonna astutely played throughout the '80's, accounting for her amazing success -- that defiantly sexual female, both in control yet in need of a man to satisfy her, who simultaneously celebrates the Dionysian rites of excess and rebels against the conservative, materialistic, uptight yuppiedom that dominated '80's popular culture, if not real life. I know I fell for her call of Pan.
      � A.E. Souzis

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