A few years ago I got hold of a copy of Dave Marsh’s book The Heart of Rock and Soul (ISBN 0140121080) that modestly claimed to be a list of the 1001 greatest singles ever made. While there were obviously loads of classic records in there, and it was fairly well written, it struck me as being totally beholden to the conventional Rolling Stone view of rock history, with very little outside of the mainstream aside from a smattering of obscure sixties soul and garage band records. I reckoned I could do better, and put together my own thousand. Then promptly forgot all about it.
A week or so ago, I came across the list when sorting through an assortment of unlabeled computer CDs. It’s about six years old, but holds up pretty well. I thought it might be worth sharing. Firstly I tweaked it a bit – added some things that were glaring omissions, cut some things which felt like flab. I also decided to limit it to the twentieth century, rather than attempt to bring it up to date. After all, the single is effectively a dead medium. Outside of DJ culture, and specially pressed up sevens for collectors, who actually buys physical singles these days? The singles chart is merely a most downloaded songs list – a great number which don’t physically exist as singles.
Doing a 1 to 1000 list in order struck me as absurd. Anyone who boldly claims that X or Y is the 823rd greatest single of all time is clearly an idiot. So this makes no attempt to be in any order of merit. It’s a combination of objective and subjective views – historical importance and how I feel about a song. Nothing was added for reasons of balance, but some records that I like were ditched in favour of others that I like equally, but which are probably more important in the scheme of things. Having said that, there’s a lot that I included that are obscure, or just not widely rated.
As far as what is or isn’t a single goes, I discounted EPs where there was no particular lead track, but included those which had one. Some are US singles, some are UK singles and a few are from elsewhere. This isn’t an exact science. I thought of doing them chronologically, or alphabetically by artist, but plumped for alphabetically by song title. It mashes things up a bit. Finally, this isn’t my pronouncement on the greatest records of all time. If it’s missing, it’s missing – it may be because I forgot it, or it may be that I don’t particularly rate it. It’s not important.
Here’s your first ten:
BANG BANG MACHINE – 16 Years (Parallel 1 1992)
I wrote a piece on this here.
ROLLING STONES – 19th Nervous Breakdown / As Tears Go By (Decca 12331 1966)
Classic Stones tunes showing their cocky, slightly misogynous side, and their sensitive, caring side at the same time.
GRANT HART – 2541 / Come Home / Let’s Go (SST 219 1989)
The story of a break-up which could be applied to both the demise of a relationship and the demise of the band (Hüsker Dü). When I first bought it (on a natty three inch CD), I played it to my girlfriend. She burst into tears. A few weeks later, when she’d left, it dawned on me why. Nearly twenty years later, it’s still quite hard to listen to.
MAYTALS – 54-46 / Version (Trojan 7808 1970)
54-46 really was Toots Hibbert’s number when he was jailed for marijuana possession. It’s a record that represents the transition from rock steady to reggae proper. Brilliant bass line.
CORNERSHOP – 6AM Jullander Shere (Wiiija 48 1995)
“Brimful of Asha” may have been their number one, but this remains their defining moment for me. A brilliant, lazy skank that combines the surly, bloody-mindedness of the Fall with the rhythms of the subcontinent.
SAM COOKE – A Change is Gonna Come / Shake (RCA 8486 1965)
This was Cooke’s brilliant, final flourish before his tragic death. It’s THE civil rights anthem – a mixture of secular and Gospel, hope and suffering. One of those records you can play over and over and never tire of. Few, if any, artists have ever gone out on such a high note.
RAY CHARLES – A Fool For You / This Little Girl of Mine (Atlantic 1063 1955)
I can’t think of any song that the normally cocky Ray Charles sounds quite as vulnerable on as “A Fool For You”. It’s a slow, blues/soul ballad that is full of suffering. It’s by far my favourite song of his.
THE CURE – A Forest / Another Journey by Train (Fiction 10 1980)
The combination of that thump-hiss beat, and the simple four-note riff that underpins “A Forest” gives it that slightly panicky, slightly paranoid air. There’s no real warmth to it, something the band took to its logical conclusion with the Pornography album two years later – possibly the coldest, most paranoid album I’ve ever heard.
ELBOW BONES & THE RACKETEERS – A Night in New York / Happy Times (EMI 8184 1984)
I seem to recall that there was an August Darnell involvement in this record somewhere. I got it in a WH Smith sale for 10p! It’s such a swanky tune – disco meets the big band era via Havana. It just oozes the glamour of Studio 54 and the other up town clubs, but at the same time, there’s no elitism about it. One of the great Saturday night records.
POGUES – A Pair of Brown Eyes / Whiskey You’re the Devil (Stiff 220 1985)
“A Pair of Brown Eyes” is a perfect example of us Celts’ predilection for alcohol, sentimentality and nostalgia. Combining the experiences of World War One machine-gun fodder and Soho drunks in one song, there’s a shared undercurrent of wasted lives, ruined by war and whisky. In stark contrast, the titular brown eyes offer a reason to go on, even if they merely represent the memory of something that has gone for good.
The next bunch coming soon.