Benjamin Ray's 101 Favorite Songs

(More Or Less)

by Benjamin Ray

How do you distill a lifetime of music into 101 songs? How do you take a library of music on records, CDs, tapes, mp3s, and the jukebox in your head and possibly pick out the songs that mean the most to you? It’s a very tough journey, but also a reminder of how powerful music is at inciting memories, sights, sounds, smells, emotions. It’s the soundtrack to a life lived.

So, the conceit of this is simple. The list is my 101 favorite songs as of this writing. Now, because lists like this invariably incite several eye-rolls, hand gestures and insults about my state of mind, the following ground rules apply:

  • This is not a list of the best songs of all time. It is my list of personal favorites, an attempt to quantify the 101 songs I would not want to live without.
  • This is not a list of the best artists of all time. There are some artists who I greatly admire and/or enjoy who are not or barely here, such as the Who, Miles Davis, Metallica, Gary Clark Jr., Rush, Tool, Genesis, Van Halen, Outkast, Queen, Sonic Youth, and the Rolling Stones.
  • A bit about me: I was born and raised in Lansing, MI, and am now a 36-year-old white guy with a desk job. While I love many genres and seek out good music in all forms, perhaps inevitably this list skews toward rock and roll, with an emphasis on the 1970s-1990s. If your list is neatly divided into 10 songs from 10 genres in an attempt to appear well-rounded (or if it’s the truth, which I doubt), good on you. This is my honest list.
  • Finally, understand that song choices are very personal. You may absolutely love your bands /songs and consider them the best ever. They would be in your list. That’s awesome that their music speaks to you. They are not in mine, and that’s fine, too.

Okay, all clear? Good! Now let’s get started.

Freebie: Lonestar -- “Amazed”lonestar_lonelygrill_160

I’m not a country fan, so you won’t find it anywhere else, but this is my wedding song. I have a fond memory of being at the Hoedown in Detroit with my then-fiancée; as Lonestar played this song, my dedication message to Jessica was displayed on the big screen behind the band. It’s a simple but heartfelt declaration of love that will last.

101. Christian Scott -- “Dialect”
Calling this jazz seems like a disservice; no jazz song I know has such a pounding piano, rock ‘n’ roll beat, or defiant sax solo. Not since Miles, anyway.

100. Sarah McLachlan -- “Possession”
Based on true-life letters she received at the time, the song would have been engaging enough, but setting it to a warm house beat and double-tracking her voice in the chorus elevates this considerably.

99. King Crimson -- “Red”
The hard-rock instrumental title track remains one of the leanest, most muscular riffs of Fripp’s career, a chance to strip away the artifice and make sweet noise.

98. Metallica -- “Wherever I May Roam”
I’ll get heat for this, but I came of age during the era of Load and so the early Metallica albums just never got under my skin the way they did for so many fans. I even like Death Magnetic. That said, this squeaks in as my favorite from the band.

97. Oasis -- “Champagne Supernova”
I know the lyrics are meaningless, but it’s such a grandiose swell of noise that I can’t help but get swept up in it.

96. Iggy Pop -- “Lust For Life”
A rejuvenated Iggy, having fun again, with one of the absolute best drum tracks of the ‘70s. You almost see a comic bubble saying “whomp” coming out of the speakers with each beat.

95. Genesis -- “In The Cage”
This was about the only old-school song that survived into all future tours, because both Phil and Peter are able to inhabit the drama and urgency of the piece and bring it home, and because Tony Banks both drives the piece with that spooky keyboard riff and the solo.

94. The Guess Who -- “Undun”
An underrated little melancholy number with more depth than these guys normally possessed.

93. Mark Morrison -- “Return Of The Mack”
A great one-hit R&B wonder from the late ‘90s.

92. Madonna -- “Ray Of Light”
To me, this was Madge’s finest moment, because she stopped trying to be a character and let her personality, spirituality and pop instincts shine.

91. Crystal Waters -- “She’s Homeless”
Another ‘90s one-hit wonder, with a fine beat, a pounding synth and a good message.

90. Bob Moses -- “Tearing Me Up”
Great bass, great vocal harmonies in the chorus, a seductive and smooth approach, the kind of song that just sucks you in and that you live in for a while.

89. Dawes -- “Feed The Fire”
A newer song with late-70s AOR overtones that is naggingly catchy.

88. Tears For Fears -- “Watch Me Bleed”tearsforfears_hurting_150
There are several fine songs on the duo’s debut, but I have always preferred this one to “Mad World” or “Change.”

87. U2 -- “A Man And A Woman”
Surprisingly, the Edge takes a backseat in the one, which feels like a duet between Bono and Adam Clayton on bass. It’s far better than it has any right to be, and I can never shake it when I hear it.

86. Duran Duran -- “Come Undone”
I can do without the band’s ‘80s output, but this song from their 1993 comeback is beautiful and features Simon’s finest singing on record.

85. Pearl Jam -- “Daughter (live)”
PJ’s fluid, long live shows are legendary by now, and every time they play this you never know what to expect. There could be a cover, there could be a call and response, there could just be a jam, but no live version of this is not great.

84. R.E.M. -- “Oddfellows Local 151”
The Athens band had a knack early on for bringing colorful Southern characters to life. But where the song would have been observational on Fables, it’s ratcheted up to epic noise on Document; you’ve never heard someone sing the word “firehouse” with as much anguish at Stipe musters.

83. Supertramp -- “Goodbye Stranger”
A fun classic rocker, elevated by the elongated guitar solo that closes the song, adding a full minute of denouement while the band whangs away in the background. Good fun.

82. The Beatles -- “Tomorrow Never Knows”
I tend to prefer later Beatles, when they stopped touring and focused on studio records, and this hypnotic drone is – to me – one of the pinnacles of this period, leading the way toward Sgt. Pepper’s.

81. Led Zeppelin -- “Rock And Roll”
Boy, it doesn’t get more basic than this, does it?

80. Foster the People -- “Best Friend”
Supermodel came out of nowhere to be one of the great pop albums of the last 10 years, and this song is just one of many that make it so good.

79. The Allman Brothers Band -- “Whipping Post”
Either the studio version or the Fillmore version are fine, as they give Duane a chance to shine while updating a blues standard with grit and soul.

78. Pink Floyd -- “Echoes”
Sidelong suites (kids: that means songs longer than 18 minutes) are always debatable, but nobody can debate this one, a space-rock masterpiece that closed the book on Floyd’s first chapter as a band and said all it needed to say.

77. The Temptations -- “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”
Whether the story is true or fictional is irrelevant, because the drama pulls you in and the different singers inhabit the different emotions that bring the story to life.

76. Pearl Jam -- “No Way”
Other songs from Yield get love but I am drawn to this one, a low-key number that nevertheless gets under your skin. “I’ll stop trying to make a difference? No way,” sings Eddie, and it’s hard not to love that sentiment.

75. Joe Bonamassa -- “Mountain Climbing”joebonamassa_desperation_150
Blues of Desperation is my favorite JB album and this is the best song from it (though “This Train” would probably be #102 on my list here), a stomping midtempo rocker with confident drumming from session wiz Anton Fig.

74. Dream Theater -- “Pull Me Under”
Loud, hard-driving prog rock, still my favorite DT song.

73. King Crimson -- “Discipline”
Basically, the quadratic equation set to music. It’s a lot better than it sounds.

72. Live -- “Ghost”
On an album full of moody, expansive, overproduced songs, this is one of the best.

71. Supertramp -- “Even In The Quietest Moments”
A languid, enveloping piece that you won’t find on hits collections.

70. R.E.M. -- “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”
Another great song from Fables, though you have to be in the right frame of mind. One of the few psychedelic-rock songs from the band, written when they were in a weird frame of mind.

69. The Spirits -- “Drive”
‘90s colors showing again: I found this song tucked away on a mix CD when I bought a pair of jeans at American Eagle. Never heard of this band before or since, which is a shame. This is a brilliant melancholy pop song with some great singing.

68. Marvin Gaye -- “Inner City Blues”
The title track of What’s Going On is hopeful, but this is its flip side, the bubbling current of injustice that led Gaye to write his finest album. Righteous anger has never sounded so seductive.

67. Outkast -- “B.O.B.”
Part of growing up in the ‘90s was that all genres of music were just part of life; at my high school, my circle of buddies and acquaintances would listen to everything from Pink Floyd to Bone Thugs n’ Harmony to N*SYNC to Linkin Park without batting an eye. Out of this musical stew rose Outkast, and this rapid-fire rollercoaster of a multi-genre song still stuns. There is a lot to unpack here.

66. Filter -- “Take A Picture”
An expansive, acoustic song unlike anything the band did before or since. If you’ve only heard the single version, you’ve missed out.

65. Tears For Fears -- “Raoul And The Kings Of Spain”
Nobody remembers the final TFF album, likely because it was only Roland Orzabal solo and because the musical world had changed in 1995, but it’s better than that reputation. The title track alone is truly excellent.

64. Morrissey -- “You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side”
Love the surf-rock guitar and bass riff that rumbles underneath Moz’s voice, who also is in fine form here.

63. Savoy Brown -- “Hellbound Train”
This one takes a little while to get going, but that journey is part of the fun, and worth it to get to the long instrumental second half of the song.

62. Live -- “Lakini’s Juice”
I will defend Secret Samadhi as every bit as good as Throwing Copper, and this is the song that got me into the band. It’s still prime late-90s rock from arguably the last noteworthy year of the commercial alt-rock genre.

61. Linkin Park -- “In The End”
Nu-metal would quickly become a parody, but Linkin Park was one of the first bands of the new millennium, and this stands tall above most songs from the era. It’s got true heart and amazing vocal work.

60. John Wetton -- “Caught In The Crossfire”
Weirdly, after King Crimson and before Asia, John Wetton released a little-heard solo album. I was instantly hooked by this sax-and-bass-driven pop song, the chorus of which is better than most of Asia’s entire output.

59. The Doors -- “Riders On The Storm”doors_la
The best bass riff of the band’s career – not saying much, since they didn’t have a bass player – and the most successful at setting a mood and scene without being annoying or self-indulgent.

58. Stone Temple Pilots -- “Big Empty”
Moody, expansive, prime STP, one of their truly great songs.

57. Pink Floyd -- “Dogs”
I used to love The Wall as a teenager, but when I grew up, I left it behind and moved back an album to the far more interesting Animals. All three main songs are good, but this one (originally worked out on stage as “You Gotta Be Crazy” several years prior) is the best, showing a lifetime of screwing other people over for personal gain will leave you sad, broken and alone.

56. The Stooges -- “Fun House”
Really, all of Fun House belongs here, because it’s of a piece and works well as it flows from “Down on the Street” to the title cut. Sometimes you just need basic, stomping, retrograde Michigan rock and roll to bring you down to Earth.

55. Tears For Fears -- “Head Over Heels”
A lush, semi-romantic pop song with some nimble singing from Roland Orzabal.

54. Jimi Hendrix -- “Voodoo Chile”
The overplayed Hendrix rockers really don’t do much for me anymore; to me, his heart was more in the blues than in psychedelia, as proven on this 15-minute workout from Electric Ladyland.

53. The Clash -- “London Calling”
Punk’s greatest band? Maybe. This, though, is their best song, a stark yet catchy reminder of the state of things.

52. U2 -- “Bad (live)”
It’s the Wide Awake in America version from 1985, and it is far better because the Edge pushes the faint keyboard riff of the original to the forefront, sharing space with that two-note guitar riff. The performance is lived-in and urgent.

51. The Moody Blues -- “Gypsy”
When the band dropped the pretensions and cosmic psychedelic BS, they could write some good rock songs, albeit with a fantasy twist. Justin Hayward paints a vivid picture of the title character’s journey, and the song was a fan and concert favorite for a long time.

50. Smashing Pumpkins -- “The Everlasting Gaze”
Yeah, yeah, I respect and admire Melon Collie and Siamese Dream like I’m supposed to, but if I want a Pumpkins song, this fuzzed-out wall of noise is my go-to.

49. R.E.M. -- “Maps And Legends”
As I get older I have come around on Fables of the Reconstruction, and this song did a lot to get me there, especially the live version from Live at the Olympia. The verses are fine, but the chorus (and Mike Mills’ backup vocals) elevate this ahead of the pack, in my playlist.

48. Pearl Jam -- “Inside Job”pearljam_s-t
This stunner of a slow song has one of the band’s best introductions, all restraint and buildup, Vedder less singing than musing in a dimly-lit room. “I choose to feel / It’s how I am,” he says. Good.

47. Noel Gallagher -- “Ballad Of The Mighty I”
Noel created one of his best songs post-Oasis, tucked at the end of his second solo album, driven by a rubberband single-note bass pushed to the front of the mix.

46. Dave Matthews Band -- “The Last Stop”
An odd pick as a top DMB track, maybe, but I love the drama of the piece, how its vaguely Eastern melody weaves between the anti-religion-as-defense-for-hate lyrics.

45. Led Zeppelin -- “Achilles’ Last Stand”
The final, great epic from the band, a howling cry of defiance after fame and drugs and an auto accident and critical bashing defined the band’s middle period. For the last time, they sounded invincible; Plant’s final rising vocal crescendo and fadeout is arresting and chilling.

44. Elton John -- “Madman Across The Water (original version)”
The album version of this early Elton tune is very good in its own right, but originally there was a longer guitar-only version, which omits the strings and is much better for it.

43. U2 -- “Mofo”
Pop is better than most people remember, and this song is a big reason why, a rampaging, jittery electronic piece with some of Bono’s most honest lyrics.

42. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five -- “The Message”
One of hip-hop’s greatest songs was pretty much its first, and even today it paints a stark, brutal reality of life in the inner city and of the hopelessness that can drive good men to do bad things. Few songs are this vivid and catchy in setting a realistic scene.

41. Seal -- “Crazy”
I love Seal’s voice, and here it’s put to great dramatic effect in his best song.

40. Pearl Jam -- “Rearviewmirror”
Ever left behind a bad job, a bad family situation, or a bad relationship? This song perfectly captures that feeling, and by the end you picture yourself and/or Eddie in the car zooming down the highway, toward a better future.

39. The Roots -- “The Seed (2.0)”
Always loved this one, a confident hip-hop strut about…uh…someone giving birth to music, or something. Not sure, and that’s okay.

38. Oasis -- “Morning Glory”oasis_morning
Probably my favorite Oasis song, where the wall of guitars, the attitude, and the booming sound all coalesce into an indelible whole.

37. Joe Bonamassa -- “The Ballad of John Henry”
As Stevie Ray Vaughan was to blues-rock lovers in the 80s, Joe Bonamassa is to blues-rock lovers in the 00s-10s, only louder. Here, he confidently amps up a song about a folk hero, adding ratting chains for effect, and it’s awesome.

36. Michael Jackson -- “Billie Jean”
A perfect pop song. Good lyrics, excellent beat, the kind of song that makes you want to dance no matter where you are when you hear it. This gets awkward in a bathroom stall or in the middle of church, but I digress.

35. Maire Brennan -- “No Easy Way”
A beautiful, dreamlike Irish song, and one that reminds me of my mother.

34. Pink Floyd -- “Welcome To The Machine”
A languid stunner, perfectly placed after “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” on the album, continuing to capture that lightning-in-a-bottle time period where the band was both creatively juiced and fueled by guilt and emotion over what happened to Syd Barrett.

33. The Smiths -- “How Soon Is Now?”
The most un-Smiths song there is, which is why I like it so much, possessing a sense of gravity and offhand importance.

32. U2 -- “Wire”
The second of three great songs from The Unforgettable Fire is a skittish post-punk piece that blends the best of War with the new direction the band was going. The band maintains tension throughout, leading into Bono’s nonstop speak-vocals to close out the song. It sounds great in the car. Actually, all of this list does.

31. Fleetwood Mac -- “Big Love (live)”
Ignore the decent studio track and go with the Dance version, which is just Lindsey Buckingham furiously picking and singing under a spotlight. Just try to re-create this on guitar, and you’ll see how difficult it is, but he makes it sound great.

30. The Allman Brothers Band -- “Jessica”
I liked this one a lot even before I married my wife of the same name. It’s the most fun the band ever had.

29. Journey -- “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”
Generally, arena rock isn’t my thing outside of as a soundtrack to euchre and beer nights with friends, but this song is an outlier in its paean to unrequited or broken love, and with a monster sound to boot.

28. Stone Temple Pilots -- “Sex Type Thing”
This rollicking hard-rock blast is what really got me into STP in the first place and remains my favorite track of theirs, lyrics aside.

27. Live -- “The Dam At Otter Creek”
A surprisingly dramatic song. “We took the dead man in sheets to the river, flanked by love” sings Ed Roland, before breaking into an anguished wail of “Be here now” four times as the music rises in desperation.

26. R.E.M. -- “Welcome To The Occupation”rem_document_150
Another blast of pop-rock from the early days of the band, both political and punchy. Early R.E.M. is so much better than anything from 1991 forward, and songs like this are why.

25. U2 -- “Moment Of Surrender”
A culmination of sorts of all the dramatic U2 songs released up to that point, and an intimate look at those little moments in life that reveal something bigger. Since 2009, the band hasn’t even tried to write songs like this anymore, and I think they know they peaked here. Even Rolling Stone called it the best song of 2009.

24. Supertramp -- “Child Of Vision”
Maybe an odd pick as my favorite Supertramp cut, but this album closer is a long, dramatic number ripe for rediscovery. The warring singers, who then come together in the chorus only because they have to, as well as the long electric piano outro? Great tune.

23. Pearl Jam -- “Not For You”
Rarely has a song so solidified a band’s audience and pushed away its detractors. Nearly 30 years on, it’s still powerful.

22. Blue Oyster Cult -- “Don’t Fear (The Reaper)”
Before SNL imprinted this one in a different way on the national psyche, it was a killer song, one that I can’t help but sing to as the interlocking voices weave together in the chorus.

21. King Crimson -- “The Talking Drum”
This one gets overlooked when talking about Larks and I can’t understand why, as it’s the best song on the album by a long shot.

20. Led Zeppelin -- “That’s The Way”
Unexpectedly, this has become one of my favorites over the years, a plaintive acoustic unlike most of Zep’s catalog.

19. Pearl Jam -- “State Of Love And Trust”
The band released so many good songs in their first four years that they could have released a third album between 1991 and 1993. This would have topped that list.

18. R.E.M. -- “These Days”
Tough to pick one R.E.M. song above another, but I suppose I would default to this pop rock track by a smidge. We are hope despite the times, indeed.

17. U2 -- “The Unforgettable Fire”
An atmospheric classic, one the band still plays live but not to the point of overkill, with a great sentiment about not looking back.

16. The Smithereens -- “Blood & Roses”
My favorite Smithereens moment and proof that the band should have been more popular. Nirvana would have more success with this same riff years later. Live versions also extend the solo, which is always good.

15. Talking Heads -- “Life During Wartime (live)”
The studio version is fine, but Bernie Worell adds a new depth to the Stop Making Sense version that rockets it to essential status. So much fun.

14. Pink Floyd -- “One Of These Days”
Like other Floyd songs, I have memories of driving in northern Michigan on early mornings listening to this song. Many years on, it still transports me with that rumbling one-note bass and Gilmour’s slide guitar.

13. Jeff Buckley -- “Hallelujah”
The definitive version of this song, no question. An utterly mesmerizing, melancholy piece, imbued with raw emotion in every word and a mood-setting introduction and bridge that is absolutely necessary.

12. Depeche Mode -- “Policy Of Truth”
My personal favorite song by the band, discovered tucked away on a – get ready – Circuit City compilation CD, which should tell you all you need to know about the time period in which I grew up. The insistent beat, the commanding vocals, the long instrumental coda…it’s just a great track.

11. Led Zeppelin -- “When The Levee Breaks”ledzeppelin_4
I can live without most of the band’s fourth album, as it has etched a groove into my brain, but I cannot live without this song, as expansive and hypnotic as the band ever got. Both Rolling Stone and Robert Christgau called it the greatest achievement of the album, as opposed to that other ditty about bustling hedgerows or some shit.

10. Genesis -- “Firth Of Fifth”
I grew up an old-school Genesis fan, and even now prefer the Peter Gabriel era to the Phil Collins era, and this song is a main reason why. I get that the lyrics aren’t memorable, but the pounding Tony Banks piano intro (usually omitted in concert) and the finest Steve Hackett solo on record (don’t @ me, Rolling Stone agreed) elevate this song considerably. It’s everything great about the best version of the band.

9. Golden Earring -- “Twilight Zone” (any version)
The disclaimer is because I truly came to love this track once I discovered the live versions available, especially the Leiden 1984 or the Something Heavy Going Down versions. It’s a great song to begin with, but live the band turns it into an epic, building tension before the long guitar break.

8. Pearl Jam -- “Alive”
The other twin peak of Ten and the most heroic guitar solo of the ‘90s, plus a rallying cry for anyone who has ever dealt with any shit in their life. The song makes you feel like the title when it’s over.

7. Alice In Chains -- “Would?”
There’s a menacing unease to this track, easily the best of the band’s many drug-referencing tracks, a primal howl showing someone caught in a self-defeating loop of addiction. The bassline is the unsung hero, propelling the song even more than the guitars, and the end result is both foreboding and light on its feet.

6. King Crimson -- “The Sheltering Sky”
Certainly this tops nobody’s Crimson list, but I’m a lifelong fan who has ranked all of their songs, and this remains my favorite. It’s a long and hypnotic instrumental, driven by hand percussion, some skronky guitar fills and then a shimmering yet melancholy midsection.

5. U2 -- “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
The band’s most dramatic and best moment came early in their career, when they absorbed the pain and loss and idiocy of the wars in Ireland and turned it into art. It’s a strident, wounded howl of despair (“bodies strewn across the dead-end street”) and hope (“tonight, we can be as one”).

4. Led Zeppelin -- “Trampled Underfoot”
The stomping yet swinging beat, that guitar lick, Plant’s ridiculous car-as-sex metaphors, Jones’ keyboard solo…it’s all fantastic. I include the live versions as well (from the Led Zeppelin DVD and even Celebration Day), which make this great song even better with extended guitar solos and a longer outro that sees the band just lock in and ride, man.

3. The Beatles -- “A Day In The Life”
This song was a turning point in my life. The first time I heard it, I was 10, it was on a turntable, and I stood in my basement, transfixed, unable to move, my young mind being opened to all that music could be. Even now, after years of Beatles songs on a loop, this is one of the few that I still need to listen to, not just to hear it, but to experience it.

2. Pearl Jam -- “Jeremy”pinkfloyd_wish
Pearl Jam remains my favorite band and I have multiple favorites across their albums, but I always come back to this one as a triumph. The second half of the song is the best, with the vocal harmonizing and tricks Eddie employs to the crashing, swirling wall of noise, made bigger with echo (a practice the band would tamp down immediately on subsequent albums). Simply phenomenal.

1. Pink Floyd -- “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
The entire 26-minute, nine-part suite is, quite simply, my favorite song of all time. It’s got heart oozing out of its lyrics, but David Gilmour’s plaintive guitar says just as much as the lyrics do in their mournful elegy to a lost friend. No matter how old I get, or where I am in life, it always speaks to me.

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