15. Lyin’ Eyes, The Eagles

Lyin’ Eyes has the peaceful, easy rolling rhythm that’s an Eagles trademark and the cool, non-emotional tone of Southern California – a dotted line runs from the Beach Boys in the ‘60s to the Eagles in the ‘70s. The story is as old as the Hollywood hills, but never in rock music has it been better told: a “city girl” hooks a rich old man for his money, has an affair with a younger man but sees that’s not the answer, either. The song runs 6:15, about twice as long as the standard cut, and each of the seven verses both propels the story and captures a vivid image. And, fans of Robert Frost note, every line is a neat rhyme. My favorite: “Late at night, the big old house gets lonely/ I guess every port of refuge has its price/ And it breaks her heart to think her love is only/ Given to a man with hands as cold as ice.” I’ve probably sat in my car waiting for this song to end more than any other. The music is pretty, the message is not: “There ain’t no way to hide your lyin’ eyes.”


Sidebar: Western Rock

I love the Eagles. Somehow it has become fashionable to look down upon them, perhaps because of their commercial success, perhaps because they had too many farewell tours (cf. the Rolling Stones), perhaps because Glenn Frey’s not much of an actor or Don Henley has espoused too many liberal causes. But I’ve been hooked since the opening chords of Take It Easy and have admired the Beatles-like trajectory of their career, even as the originally indistinguishable group members assumed recognizable musical styles and, ultimately, careers. Songs from their first album fueled my attempts to learn the guitar; the lyrical dexterity of Hotel California still amuses me; and for emotional depth, The Last Resort still tugs. I also choose the Eagles to represent western rock, if that’s what you call the strand of rock that emerged from Austin to LA with roots in the “w” of “country and western.” The Byrds, Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and everybody whom Emmylou Harris sang with.

16. With or Without You, U2

Like the sea rolling over the sand, With or Without You seeps from every pore of the speakers and takes hold of every nerve of my body. It becomes an environment all to itself. The 4/4 tomtom beat of the bass grabs me and holds on, then halfway through, the drum starts pounding the backbeat. Bono finishes his lyrics (about which, more later) and the rhythm instruments, still insistent, quiet down while a soft high wail pierces the upper register. Then – and this is the killer moment – Edge’s guitar comes in with a syncopated beat, on top of the tomtom and backbeat, full rolling orchestration resumes, and I feel, this is what I’ve waited for. What Bono is waiting for is totally unclear, with more of those cryptic British lyrics: “Sleight of hand and twist of fate/ On a bed of nails she makes me wait/ And I wait without you.” If the song is addressed to “you,” who is “she”? The words don’t matter, but Bono’s voice does. It starts in a matter-of-fact tone and becomes increasingly urgent as the song proceeds, imbuing it, like all U2 songs, with an aura of serious import. There’s an anthemic quality, also indigenous to U2: “and you give yourself away” is repeated over and over, and the mantra “with or without you” is intoned 12 times. The wall of sound would make Phil Spector proud.


Sidebar: Heartbreak Songs

If I get any sense from the words, With or Without You describes the familiar male condition of being in love with someone who is not adequately reciprocating. I’m not happy when I’m with you, but I can’t live without you. Oh, despair! And while there are a couple of songs about being happy – I’m Into Something Good and 57th Street Bridge Song come to mind – the deep stuff, the songs that bite into your soul and won’t let go, tend to be about lost love and unhappy moments. If someone never loved and lost, how much of the rock repertoire would be so less meaningful, if not a mystery! My own heartbreaks? – I’ve had a few, and I was helped through them by the likes of the Fleetwoods singing Mr. Blue, Little Anthony’s Tears on My Pillow, the Skyliners’ Since I Don’t Have You, the Beau Brummels’ Just A Little and my all-time consolation, Love Hurts by the Everly Brothers.

17. Runaround, Blues Traveler

John Popper’s harmonica sound is practically unique in rock’n’roll, but that is not even his most distinctive contribution to Run-Around. Rather, it is his gravelly but relentlessly upbeat voice which runs through a full narrative lyric while leaving me with no clue what he is saying or singing about. Or even what is a “run-around.” “Upbeat” is the key word here, for it is the urgent rhythm that captures my full attention the first instant the background guitars start strumming. Subtly underlying all of the harmonic flourishes is a 4/4 bass line that ascends, A-B-B-C, for the entire 4:40. And what flourishes! As the most modern song on my list, it is instructive to hear how sophisticated rock has moved from the days of Earth Angel. As for those lyrics, because so many are garbled, I feel like I’m hearing old friends when the few clear phrases come through – “I like coffee, and I like tea” and “Hollywood’s calling for the movie rights” chief among them. And then there’s the opening line, “Oh, once upon a midnight dearie,” which always reminds me of a certain Christmas carol.

18. Stop! In the Name of Love, The Supremes

Polished commercial perfection and deeply expressed emotion don’t often come together, but when they do, as they do here, it is a gem. The Motown rhythm section chugs along with Southern-school marching band precision and the Supremes are given a readymade dance move, with gloved hand extended at every “Stop!” But then, before each verse, the background chords go minor and Diana Ross, at her very best, tells her sad tale, and you can hear her heart breaking: “Is her sweet expression/ Worth more than my loving affection?” The approximate rhymes, a la Smoky Robinson, – “patient” with “infatuation” – add somehow to the sincerity of Diana’s plea. And there is one more important balance: the sad plight of the jilted lover leads not to tears, but to the forceful demand, “Stop! in the name of love.”


Sidebar: Girl Groups

Notably absent on the list to this point is any female representation. This in no way reflects my current taste, which runs heavily to Dar Williams, Nancy  Griffith, Mary-Chapin Carpenter; and Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Patti Smith’s Horses are among my alltime favorite albums. Rather, it reflects the far smaller role women have always played in rock: even when there are great female lead vocalists, like Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry, say, the rest of the group is male. Worse, in early rock, girl songs were often fawning: I Want to Be Bobby’s Girl; Johnny Get Angry; Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb. Still, at any one time there was usually at least one signature girl group that could stand with the best, the Chantels, the Shirelles and the Ronnettes chief among them. For general recognition, though, the Supremes were just that. At the peak of Motown glory, they matched the Temptations hit-for-hit. But rock was very much a man’s world, and it is fitting and symbolic that they appear on this list 17 places down.

19. I Wonder Why, Dion and the Belmonts

A Morse-Code barrage of “din-din-dins” announces one of the great bass lines in rock, a line that flares and swoons but never lets up. The last “din” in the opening line morphs into the first word of “don’t-know-why-I,” with each word adding a singer to the mix, in harmonic thirds. All join together then for “love-you-like-I-do,” and the Belmonts are off to the races. Surprisingly early, after verse one, the rather grounded falsetto makes its entrance, while the background singers don-don-di-diddity in controlled anarchy that carries through to the end. A pushing backbeat propels the song in a quick 2:16, stopping twice for a dramatic “wop (pause), wop (pause), wop-wop, wopwopwop.” The words – who listens to the words? – are simple but profound, nailing the uncertainty that every lover, however true, at one time or another must feel. “I wonder why I’m sure you’re always true” doesn’t sound so sure, dun-dun-du-does it?


Sidebar: The Doo-wop Canon

I originally intended to make #19 a three-way tie, with Come Go With Me by the Dell-Vikings and Why Do Fools Fall In Love? by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers sharing the spot. Each has the classic elements of up-tempo doo-wop with these two even adding the characteristic sax solo. “Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-de-dooby-dum” is a Hall-of-Fame doo-wop line, as is “Yip-dum-wop-a-dum, wop-a-dum, wop-a-ye-de.” Further, I could have covered the main strands of the genre with the Belmonts – white Italians, the Teenagers – inner-city blacks, and the Dell Vikings – interracial Californians. But the more I listened to the three songs together, the more I felt I Wonder Why was the only one that never sagged, even for a second. It is hard, of course, to compare doo-wop classics to the Eagles, and in fairness I will prepare a Doo-Wop Top 25 to stand on its own.  But this music of the ‘50s achieved a perfection with a semi-rigid formula: a 45 with a slow side and a fast side. While radio anointed one side as the hit, the flip side that you discovered at a party, say, could be just as good – and more memorable because you felt it was your discovery. Think Danny and the Juniors: At the Hop was the uptempo ‘A’ side; while Sometimes (When I’m All Alone) was just as good to dance to, real close. The harmonies were pleasing, the beat was irresistible, the bass and falsetto gave range, and the lead singer was distinctive (so much so that his or her name often emerged after-the-fact: Cleve Duncan, Fred Parris, Tony Williams, Arlene Smith are among the household names that were never mentioned when their songs were hits.)



21. Midnight Train to Georgia, Gladys Knight & Pips

Silky-smooth and warm-hearted, this song tells a tale of love that chills me every time: “I’d rather live in his world…than live without him in mine.” This is to Motown as Bonnard is to the Impressionists; it incorporates the innovations but adds the veneer of a later decade. The Pips in the background echo the moves of the Temptations, but their vocals don’t merely echo the lead singer, they advance the story! Gladys: “LA…grew too much for the man.” Pips: “…too much for the man – he couldn’t make it.” Gladys: “…..superstar” Pips: “A superstar, but he didn’t get far.” The instrumentation is unsurpassed. The chorus of strings flows and swells, then the Memphis horns punch in, eliminating any threat of mawkishness. Then from her controlled narrative voice, Gladys erupts at the end with a guttural “I got to go, I got to go” that just makes you wish she didn’t. Let that train keep rolling on. “Woo-hoo!”

22. Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley

This is the first song whose opening bars made me run to my room, close the door and sing along – yes, often in front of the mirror – pretending, or hoping, to be a rock star. I am not ashamed: Elvis had that effect on many, and Don’t Be Cruel is the quintessential Elvis. That five-note introductory guitar riff raises the speed from zero to sixty in four bars, just in time for Elvis to strut: “You-u-u know I can be found…” The Elvis yodel that set hearts aflame makes its presence felt: “Baby it’s just you I’m [glottal stop]-thinkin’ of.” Words are slurred – “believemeyouknowyou’llhave me” – but they’d be covered by the screaming anyway. The Jordanaires in the background are at their best, with staccato fillers behind the words of the verse, then a dreamy “ooh-we-ooh” following the King’s subdued “don’t be cruel.” And before you know it – in two minutes flat – it’s over, and you can’t wait for the radio to play it again.

B Side: The Elvis Oeuvre

For someone universally acknowledged as the King of Rock’n’Roll, with more records sold and #1 hits than anyone, give or take the Beatles, Elvis is conspicuously absent from the radio airwaves, and has been for 30 years. Granted, most oldies stations don’t go back beyond Motown, and “classic” tends more toward 20 years ago, not 50. Granted, a two-minute record doesn’t “fit” the modern playlist (but cf. the Ramones); and Elvis songs weren’t kept alive by being danceable. But with all those millions of people still buying Elvis memorabilia and visiting Graceland, you’d think that somewhere they’d play his music.

Elvis’s oeuvre can be divided into four distinct periods. There is early, Primitive Elvis, captured in the Sun Sessions (his greatest record), when we hear the genius who combined white country-and-western with black rhythm-and-blues to produce the raw, honest, urgent sound that propelled rock’n’roll. Then Elvis is cleaned up – adding the Jordanaires in the background, for instance – for a more commercial, but still urgent sound that is Classic Elvis. It didn’t get any better than Love Me, Too Much, All Shook Up, Don’t – and the song I liked most to “croon,” I Want You, I Need You, I Love You. Then Elvis loses a bit of steam, or gets co-opted by his terrible movie career and puts out records that are still good but don’t have that rock’n’roll intensity, songs that are carried only by his voice, a period I call Pro Forma Elvis: Stuck On You, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Good Luck Charm. Finally, there is the Revival Elvis. Seven years after Return to Sender he reappears with In the Ghetto, a new sound influenced by the Sixties. Popping pills, fighting his weight, getting divorced and living a screwy existence, trying out country, gospel, cabaret, Elvis still delivers some nice songs: Kentucky Rain, The Wonder of You, My Way, and one of my obscure favorites, True Love Travels on a Gravel Road. He should be played more often.

23. Gone Country, Alan Jackson

A sprightly guitar is joined by a pedal steel that wails then meanders through the song introducing this happy parable of musicians abandoning pop, folk and classical (?), respectively, to hop on the country bandwagon – “the whole world has gone country,” by the end. There’s an insistent backbeat that relates to rock, but the happy sound and clarity of the lyrics are country endemic. And what fun are all the near-rhymes: “Village-privilege,” “Vegas-ages,” “composition-children.” The song consciously offers a bridge for us rockers to the world of country: “they’re not as backward as they used to be.” A fiddle countermelody and honky-tonk piano add to the tapestry. After everyone is indoctrinated – “look at them boots” – the song rambles along for another 60 seconds of spright before sliding out with my favorite Alan Jackson expression, “We gone!”

Sidebar: Country Rock

There has always been an overlap between “country” and “rock,” with numbers like Sonny James’s Young Love and Guy Mitchell’s Singing the Blues topping my personal charts alongside Fats Domino and Little Richard. I had a thing for Buck Owens in college; but, Ringo Starr homage aside, that was still hee-haw country. It was getting hooked on Randy Travis’s Deeper than the Holler that turned me onto the potential likability of new country. Then I “discovered” Garth Brooks, Reba McIntire, Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dixie Chicks. I could now, without missing a beat, come up with a companion Country Top 25 that wouldn’t span as many years or emotions but would be full of songs that were, at their time, my favorites. Like Trisha Yearwood’s She’s in Love with the Boy, Chad Brock’s She Said Yes, Kenny Chesney’s How Forever Feels, Sara Evans’ Suds in the Bucket, and Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffett’s Five O’Clock Somewhere. And while I’m on the subject of crossover music, there is another middle ground, somewhere not quite rock, not quite country, that maybe is called “urban folk,” where we find Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, John Gorka and a host of others who have also added so much pleasure to my “rock” years.

24. Walk Away Renee, The Left Banke

It is hard to think of another under-three-minute pop song that draws one more quickly or more surely into its ethereal world of lost romance. After years of rapt listening, I have only the vaguest idea what the singer is singing. Something about a “sign that points one-way” and “your name and mine inside a heart upon the wall,” clearly Rimbaud-like images that find a way to haunt us, though they’re so small. The lush orchestration never lets up: it starts at intense then, two-thirds through, there is a crescendo before the final verse that ratchets the angst even higher. But it is the ultra-nasal vocal that, finally, vaults Renee into the pantheon. In my mind’s eye I see the lead singer, fronting the string section with his mournful delivery, his heart breaking, his lips never moving.