Jason Warburg's 101 Favorite Songs

(More Or Less)

by Jason Warburg

A list of favorite songs can never be more than a snapshot of a particular moment in your life. Tomorrow a song that you barely paid attention to before may hit home in a whole new way. The day after that, a song that meant so much may feel trite or overblown or somehow insufficient to the moment you’re now inhabiting. Songs are friends you keep for years, fading in and out of touch, mostly connecting and reconnecting, but sometimes disappearing into memory. This is my list today. Next month it will look different, and six months from now it might be nearly unrecognizable. But probably not—some friends you never lose touch with; they are the best, in every sense of the word.

Two substantial caveats. First, I’ve excluded entire genres from this list. Jazz, for one; I listen to a fair bit of it, but jazz is mostly instrumental, and when I think in terms of favorite “songs,” I inevitably think of music with vocals and lyrics. So while these are my favorite songs, if the charge was to list favorite pieces of music, the list would look substantially different (and likely include instrumental pieces from all genres, not just jazz). Showtunes, for another; otherwise half the Hamilton soundtrack might be on here.

Second, a lot of factors are at play in making a list like this. These aren’t necessarily the songs I would rank as the “best”; rather, they are my personal favorites, the ones I would (and do) listen to again and again. Also, some artists simply have to appear, even if I enjoy their body of work more than I do any particular song. And, some songs that should probably be here in the name of accuracy must be left off purely to make room for other artists—otherwise this might consist of 100-plus songs by my 10 favorite artists… or even just my 101 favorite Beatles songs.

All of which is to say: please don’t take this list any more seriously than I did, which was slightly too seriously, without losing track of the whole point, which was to have some fun.

Final note: after a very painful process of elimination, I had my list down to 101 a few days ahead of publication. Then Bill Withers passed and reminded me of another song that simply had to be there. So…

102. Big Smoke – “Something Good”bigsmoke_golden_150

Australian singer-songwriter Adrian Slattery, while dying of cancer, exhorts his band, loved ones, and himself to “turn it into something good”—and succeeds.

101. Jeremy Nail – “My Mountain”
Texas singer-songwriter Jeremy Nail, after losing a leg to cancer, learns to walk again, and turns his journey into a harrowing chronicle of determination.

100. Ian Hunter – “Michael Picasso”
British singer-songwriter Ian Hunter, after losing his best friend and longtime musical foil to cancer, pours out his grief in this raw, poignant tribute.

99. Sheryl Crow – “A Change Would Do You Good”
Crow was never better than on her self-titled second album, highlighted by this driving, chunky number overflowing with snarky asides and sly pop-culture references.

98. Dave Matthews Band – “Ants Marching”
After a quarter century of mostly diminishing returns, it’s easy to forget how good the DMB’s first two albums were; if this cut isn’t your favorite, swap it for “What Would You Say” or “Jimi Thing” or “Satellite” or “Too Much” or “Crash Into Me.”

97. The Kinks – “Attitude”
So many possibilities in this group’s songbook, but this has always been a personal favorite for both its admirably direct message and its irresistible drive.

96. Phil Collins – “In The Air Tonight”philcollins_face
Those. Drums.

95. Ben Folds – “Rockin’ The Suburbs”
An epic piece of satire: “It's so intense that I can't explain / All alone in my white-boy pain…”

94. Boston – “Foreplay/Long Time”
If you don’t include this one, my high school years might as well never have happened.

93. Van Halen – “You Really Got Me”
See previous entry. Plus, I’ve always wondered what Ray Davies thought of this cover. (Probably: “Royalties!”)

92. Bill Withers -- “Lean On Me”
Thank you, Bill, for this gift of a song, an anthem for the very moment when you departed.

91. Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain”
Exceptional performance of a song that is remarkable in every detail, from Mick Jagger’s harmony vocals to the way Carly turns the word “apricot” into an entire conversation.

90. Green Day – “American Idiot”
The funny part is that I’m pretty sure Billie Joe himself would trade the president he wrote this song about for the one we have now.

89. Gin Blossoms – “Lost Horizons”ginblossoms_new
Sure, “Hey Jealousy” is the one everyone remembers, but the Blossoms’ bright-and-gloomy vibe hit its apex with “She had nothing left to say so she said she loved me / I stood there grateful for the lie...”

88. Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Crossfire”
A churning, driving hard blues that SRV burns to the ground with a pair of incendiary solos.

87. Alan Parsons Project – “Breakdown”
One thing the Alan Parsons Project consistently did so well is craft arrangements that create a distinct vibe; here every single element contributes to a sense of foreboding and dissolution.

86. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”
I know, it’s Leonard Cohen’s song, and has roughly a zillion more verses than Buckley sang. But this version, into which Buckley pours every filament of his soul, is definitive.

85. Gary Clark Jr. – “Ain’t Messin’ ’Round”
What do you get when you fold Motown horns and Hendrix-level guitar playing into a blistering funk-rock anthem? Gary Clark Jr.’s swaggering, 100% true personal mission statement: “Ain't nobody else like me around.”

84. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian At Best”
This is rock and roll in the 20-teens: motor-mouthed, deadpan, reflexively ironic and relentlessly witty. A feverish jam from a terrific writer and performer.

83. Casey Frazier – “In My Good Time”
The best singer-songwriters inhabit their songs completely even when they’re about someone else. I don’t know how autobiographical this song is, but it’s as authentic as anything you’ll ever hear.

82. Becky Warren – “We’re All We Got”beckywarren_undesirable_150
People sometimes look at me funny when I tell them Becky Warren sounds like you merged Lucinda Williams and Tom Petty into one person. Then I play this song and they go “Oh. Right.”

81. Keb’ Mo’ – “God Trying To Get Your Attention”
Keb’ Mo’ is at his best when he combines sharp insight into human nature with his sharp sense of humor.

80. Death Cab For Cutie – “Bixby Canyon Bridge”
Yes, I’m partial to this one because its titular bridge is a half hour down the road. But it’s also an amazing song about grappling with grief.

79. Fastball – “Fire Escape”
Of all the hooks Fastball has ever sunk into my power-pop-loving ear, this is the one I come back to again and again.

78. U2 – “Mysterious Ways”
Twisted, ecstatic Edge guitar plus soulful, ecstatic Bono vocal plus a heavy funk-inflected groove equals aural dynamite.

77. The Police – “Message in a Bottle”
That circular riff, that keening vocal, that buoyant punch line.

76. Talking Heads – “Once In A Lifetime”
“Sane as it ever was” feels like it should be the subtitle for a book called The 21st Century So Far.

75. David Bowie – “Changes”
Too obvious a choice? Tough; I’ve always preferred straight-up melodic rocker Bowie over any of his quirkier identities. Plus, the message has proven timeless.

74. Jimi Hendrix – “All Along The Watchtower”
Dylan isn’t on this list, but his songs are. And again, you can argue for the original, but this is the definitive version.

73. Queen – “Tie Your Mother Down”queen_aday
Queen is synonymous with “over the top”; this is as true of their hard rock numbers as any of the myriad other styles they explored. Epic head-banging fun.

72. AC/DC – “Shot Down In Flames”
For me AC/DC were at their best when Bon Scott was flinging self-deprecating one-liners as furiously as the Young brothers were slinging monster riffs.

71. Jason Isbell – “If We Were Vampires”
Chorus, meet ears; lump, meet throat.

70. Fountains of Wayne – “All Kinds of Time”
Part of what makes some songs great is simply that no one else could possibly have written them. A 4:22 masterpiece spanning approximately five seconds in the lives of its characters.

69. Semisonic – “Closing Time”
A song about birth and rebirth, disguised as a set-closing anthem.

68. U2 – “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
Ringing, soulful, sky-filling, and all those other things the best U2 songs are.

67. Los Lobos – “La Bamba”
Like a couple of others on this list, this one is tied up in fond memories of a movie—the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name—but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a great song.

66. Ben Folds Five – “Brick”
Ben Folds has been many things in his career; the most important one is “honest.” A devastating song about a devastating moment.

65. Peter Gabriel – “In Your Eyes”
When Peter Gabriel writes a love song, he goes all in.

64. The Cars – “Just What I Needed”cars_s-t
The Perfect Pop Single: 1978 Edition, as well as the very definition of power pop.

63. The Who – “I Can’t Explain”
Sometimes the simplest things are the most powerful—a comment that applies equally to the song’s main riff and the piercing self-analysis of Townshend’s lyric.

62. Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Fortunate Son”
John Fogerty’s best song—which is saying something—was the theme song from an era when your economic status could represent the difference between life and death. Just like today.

61. Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations”
Would progressive rock, space-rock, psych-rock, and a dozen other related subgenres exist without this song? I dunno… but it’s a great song.

60. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – “Even The Losers”
The underdogs’ national anthem.

59. Mary Chapin Carpenter – “I Feel Lucky”
The thing about Carpenter is, regardless of the subject matter of a song, she invests every one with writerly detail and snappy punchlines.

58. Bruce Springsteen – “Brilliant Disguise”
A ferociously honest portrait of a relationship on the edge.

57. Ben E. King --- “Stand By Me”
A secular hymn of loyalty and devotion.

56. Switchfoot - “We Are One Tonight”switchfoot_nothing_150
The soundtrack to the climactic scene of my first novel earns that spotlight with a stadium-sized anthem of unity.

55. The Beatles – “With A Little Help From My Friends”
A great John song with a great Ringo vocal, immortalized for good by Joe Cocker as The Wonder Years theme song.

54. Fleetwood Mac – “Landslide”
I know, I know—it’s been overplayed. Enduring classics are like that sometimes.

53. REM – “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
Too soon?

52. U2 – “Where The Streets Have No Name”
Enough propulsive urgency to power a small city, and that guitar…

51. Gamma – “Voyager”
If required to choose a single spectacular guitar performance from a career full of them, this would be the one I would choose for Ronnie Montrose: passionate, moving, unforgettable.

50. The Spinners – “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love?” 
A stone cold soul classic.

49. Bob Seger – “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”
Seger produced a bunch of great songs, but this is the one that revs my engine every single time.

48. Simon & Garfunkel – “Mrs. Robinson”
Another artist whose catalogue of songs could easily have produced a six-way tie for this list, but this time around Mrs. R’s killer hook takes the prize.

47. Led Zeppelin – “Ramble On”
Lilting verses plus headbanging choruses equals my favorite single-song mashup of the renowned Zeppelin yin and yang.

46. The Pretenders – “The Wait”pretenders_st_150
Like most of my 17-year-old buddies listening to The Pretenders for the first time, I quickly concluded that Chrissie Hynde could probably kick my ass.

45. Sam Cooke – “(What A) Wonderful World”
That. Voice.

44. Jimi Hendrix – “Fire”
The song that makes you wonder if maybe Jimi’s guitar just spontaneously combusted that time.

43. Pink Floyd – “Wish You Were Here”
Gorgeous and devastating.

42. Tom Petty – “Wildflowers”
Just so damned beautiful in every way.

41. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – “I Second That Emotion”
In which the smoothest showman in all of Motown pens the hookiest hit single of a career studded with them.

40. Big Big Train – “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun”
Of all the tracks I’ve ever called “sublime,” this may be the sublimest; it’s so gorgeous it has me making up new words.

39. Rolling Stones – “Sympathy For The Devil”
This song IS the Rolling Stones.

38. Genesis – “Home By The Sea / Second Home By The Sea”
I’m one of those weirdos who prefers Genesis without Peter Gabriel, and Peter Gabriel without Genesis. This hard-hitting, beautifully arranged suite has long been my favorite Genesis tune.

37. Rush – “Tom Sawyer”
This song IS Rush.

36. Death Cab For Cutie – “I Will Follow You Into The Dark”deathcab_plans
No one makes fatalistic elegance more sweet and compelling than Ben Gibbard and company.

35. Last Charge Of The Light Horse – “This Is Where”
The dance between the guitars and the rhythm section is every bit as hypnotic as the scene Jean-Paul Vest paints with his haunting words.

34. The Beatles – “Help!”
How do you turn an existential crisis into a hit single, and album, and movie? (It helps if you’re the Beatles.)

33. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – “Listen To Her Heart”
The Tom Petty version of the Perfect Pop Single.

32. James Taylor – “You Can Close Your Eyes”
Never released as a single but beloved by JT aficionados, this lullaby feels like the answer to every question ever asked about love, death, music, and the universe.

31. Chicago – “25 Or 6 To 4”
A tidal wave of percussion, guitar, horns, voices, groove and syncopation that’s as vital and visceral today as it was 50 years ago.

30. Counting Crows – “Mr. Jones”
The best Van Morrison song ever written by a dreadlocked Berkeley dropout. “Believe in me / Help me believe in anything / 'Cause I want to be someone who believes.”

29. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell -- “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
The purest magic this side of Harry Potter.

28. Big Big Train – “The Underfall Yard”
Big Big Train’s “Close to the Edge” or “Supper’s Ready” – a stupendous prog epic that carries the listener away on a 20-minute journey of discovery.

27. Fountains Of Wayne – “No Better Place”fountainsofwayne_welcome
Everything that was great about FoW— an indelible hook, witty wordplay, novelistic detail—packed into a concise 4:06 package. “Is that supposed to be your poker face / Or was someone run over by a train?”

26. Fleetwood Mac – “The Chain”
The thing about “The Chain” is, even if you set aside the real-life context from which is emerged, it’s still an emotional atom bomb of a song.

25. Van Morrison – “Domino”
Snap the fingers and tap the toes, ’cause preacher Van is here with a reading from the gospel of rhythm and blues.

24. Last Charge Of The Light Horse – “What If”
A Socratic dialogue about destiny, faith, and the meaning of life that unexpectedly blossoms into the richest, purest kind of love song; just remarkable.

23. Stevie Wonder – “Higher Ground”
That. Groove.

22. Jason Isbell – “Cover Me Up”
Love challenges, endures, redeems, and heals. Most importantly, love is honest and true.

21. Bruce Springsteen – “Thunder Road”
An operatic ballad of longing and release that’s basically a prologue to “Born To Run.”

20. Elton John – “Tiny Dancer”
Yes I’m a sentimental fool whose eyes still dampen every damn time at the on-the-bus singalong scene in Almost Famous. What of it?

19. Big Big Train – “Victorian Brickwork”bigbigtrain_underfall_150
The magic behind BBT is the way they invest rangy progressive rock with genuine human emotion. Greg Spawton’s elegy for his father in simply magnificent.

18. Yes – “Awaken”
The perfect balance of yin and yang, light and heavy, and the band’s last truly great work.

17. The Beatles – “Twist And Shout”
If you could bottle exuberance, it would sound like this.

16. James Taylor – “Something In The Way She Moves”
You’re 20 years old and you write a love song so potent and timeless that your new friend George Harrison borrows the title to write a #1 hit for the Beatles. I mean, it’s a good start, right?  

15. Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Insanely brilliant, or brilliantly insane? The answer, of course, is yes.

14. Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”
The mother of all breakup songs, powered by one of the most propulsive drum performances of the rock era.

13. John Lennon – “Imagine”
Both a secular hymn and a requiem for a decade.

12. Montrose – “Make It Last”
I remember when I was seventeen.

11. Yes - “Close To The Edge”yes_close
Sharply aggressive, stunningly gorgeous, and groundbreaking in scope, it’s the 18-minute epic that assured Yes’ place in history.

10. Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
A three minute and fifteen second single with the vocal and emotional range of a full-length opera.

9. The Beatles – “Here Comes The Sun”
A luminous, enduring masterpiece. 

8. Al Green – “Let’s Stay Together”
It’s amazing anyone ever bothered trying to write or sing another love song after this one came along.

7. Aretha Franklin – “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
Pure gold, a Goffin-King classic composed for and sung by the Queen herself.

6. The Who – “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
That slashing, thundering guitar. That hair-on-fire drumming. That merciless lyric, capped by that epic scream. Pure nitroglycerin.

5. Carole King – “You’ve Got A Friend”
Of the dozens of wonderful songs she wrote, this is the one people come back to again and again. So simple, so direct, so kind that it feels like aloe vera for the soul.

4. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – “American Girl”
My first favorite TP song. The opening bars still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention every time.

3. James Taylor – “Fire And Rain”
Some songs are of their moment, and some transcend time and place and generation. There is beauty in grief;brucespringsteen_borntorun here’s all the proof anyone will ever need again.

2. The Beatles – “A Hard Day’s Night”
The first song in my life that I remember loving—50 years later every word, every beat, and every note of the guitar solo remains lodged in memory.

1. Bruce Springsteen – “Born To Run”
A 24-year-old Jersey street rat’s ecstatic vision of rock and roll and the open road as the ultimate vehicles of exhilaration, exaltation, and escape.

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