Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. What?
PUBLIC ENEMY – Welcome to the Terrordrome / version (Def Jam 1990)
Not just an intense rush of sonic warfare, but a masterclass in rapping from Chuck D. The rhythms and rhymes in the verses are incredible, and the lyrics themselves are both an astute political scattergun attack on modern society and also a joyful barrage of wordplay almost for the hell of it.
McCARTHY – Well of Loneliness / Antimamericancretin / Unfortunately (September 1987)
Jangly agitpropers McCarthy also had a gifted lyricist in Malcolm Eden. Well of Loneliness has nothing much to do with the Radclyffe Hall novel of the same name. Instead it’s a world-weary piece of defeatist cynicism. Nothing’ll change, so what’s the point? A view, I might add, that Eden the optimist is satirising.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG & HIS HOT FIVE – West End Blues / Fireworks (Okeh 1928)
PET SHOP BOYS – West End Girls / A Man Could Get Arrested (Parlophone 1985)
One of the very best tunes from a three year period during which Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens rolled out classic after classic, West End Blues is a mournful piece, swaying almost drunkenly. Perhaps the tune that fits the prohibition era more than any other in its air of melancholy and moonshine. Sixty years on, there is an air of sadness to West End Girls, too, that also reflects the age of rampant greed and an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots. The east end boys are the Flash ‘Arry brokers of the Loadsamoney generation, and the west end girls the ‘class’ that they aspire to. Consume, consume, consume – but as Tennant says in the second verse – “How much do you need?“
RUTS – West One (Shine On Me) / The Crack (Virgin 1980)
Malcolm Owen’s final statement before his death from a heroin overdose is another song that fits the vague theme of the last few of being cut adrift and lost in a society that never turns back to pick up stragglers. A lot of punk bands did reggae, usually badly, but the Ruts were the only ones who managed to fit driving rock and dub together like they were natural bedfellows. West One’s final two minutes is essentially ‘versioned’ from the first three, and just adds to the feeling of disconnection.
PFM – The Western / Hypnotising (Good Looking 1995)
Not the Italian proggers of the same name, PFM were originally junglists Mike Bolton and Jamie Saker. The Western is possibly the finest example of the ambient/electronica side of drum & bass pioneered by LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records. Some muppet labelled the sound ‘Intelligent Drum & Bass’, a patronising epiphet that fortunately didn’t stick. The track is an eight minute gallop through the grandeur of Monument Valley – John Ford does jungle.
JIMMY RUFFIN – What Becomes of the Broken Hearted / Baby I’ve Got It (Soul 1966)
JR. WALKER – What Does It Take? / Brainwasher (Soul 1969)
Two belting Motown tunes that everybody is probably familiar with. Walker’s was the more surprising, as he’d never done much in the way of conventional pop-soul before – the All Stars forté was groove-based, brass-led and tight as a gnat’s anus.
SMITHS – What Difference Does It Make? / Back to the Old House (Rough Trade 1984)
For those who weren’t around at the time, it’s hard to stress enough what difference they actually did make. At the time, the NME (then pretty much the official arbiter of what was cool and what wasn’t) had virtually sidelined guitar rock in favour of white-boy funk, Latin disco, jazz-lite and (more understandably) hip hop, electro and go-go. Guitar rock was there to be sneered at, in the main. The Smiths gave the genre a new lease of life (as, in a different way, did the likes of the Minutemen, Husker Du, the Replacements and their ilk across the pond). Unfortunately, 25 years on, their legacy seems more a curse than a blessing.
BUZZCOCKS – What Do I Get? / Oh Shit (United Artists 1978)
The grandfathers of emo? Discuss.
DJ SHADOW – What Does Your Soul Look Like? parts 1-4 (Mo Wax 1995)
OK, stretching my own definition of what is a single here. You could argue it’s not even an EP, but a short album. Whatever. This is Shadow at his best, something, sadly, that he hasn’t begun to approach in recent years. Four pieces of sample based instrumental hip hop that are chilled and expansive. Near as dammit perfect.
PET SHOP BOYS – What Have I Done to Deserve This? / A New Life (Parlophone 1987)
Tennant and Lowe again, this time helping to give Dusty Springfield’s career a deserved Indian Summer. One of the finest singers these islands have ever produced, she was always unfairly put in the box marked ‘middle of the road entertainers’ with the likes of the vastly inferior Cilla and Lulu. Even her (now recognised) masterpiece Dusty In Memphis bombed when it was first issued. She only sings the chorus on this song, but can’t help stealing the show.
GANG OF FOUR – What We All Want / History’s Bunk (EMI 1981)
They never recaptured the glory of their first album, and Solid Gold was (unfairly) seen as a massive disappointment when it came out. The real dross came later. What We All Want is an anti-consumerist anthem built on a crushing bass and drums rhythm.
RAY CHARLES – What’d I Say / part 2 (Atlantic 1959)
Pretty much Ray’s parting shot for Atlantic before he joined ABC and achieved full crossover stardom with the, frankly, ghastly Modern Sounds in Country and Western albums. This is his true legacy. Furious call and response Gospel-soul.
MARVIN GAYE – What’s Going On? / God Is Love (Tamla 1971)
Not a lot I can say about this that hasn’t been said by others. A canonical song from a canonical album.
INVITATIONS – What’s Wrong With Me Baby? / Why Did My Baby Turn Bad (Dynovoice 1965)
Even though I always head this series with a disclaimer that it is totally subjective, one of the major problems of attempting something like this is that there is just so much music that I’ve never heard and never will. Obviously, you get to hear major hits as you go through life and then you get a feel for the artists you like and it all snowballs from there. A lot of songs you hear totally by accident. I hadn’t a clue who the Invitations were, but this song appeared on a Northern Soul comp I bought. It just stood out for me. To be honest, it could be by anybody. The band don’t have anything that marks them out from a thousand other soul vocal groups, and the sound is strictly copycat Motown. But the song’s just great. There’s probably thousands of things out there this good which could have made it on this list if not for pure chance.