A playlist of pop masterpieces
We asked some Globe staffers and music contributors to pick a perfect pop song (and four runners-up, because choosing just one was way, way too hard). Here’s what they selected.
Listen to the playlist, and add your own song here:
Hall & Oates
Let’s state the obvious: Daryl Hall and John Oates have recorded some of the best pop songs from the last 50 years. Their finest remains “She’s Gone” from their 1973 blue-eyed soul pop masterpiece, “Abandoned Luncheonette.” The slow-build ballad is so beautifully sung and executed, you almost forget it’s about bitter heartbreak and existential fatigue (“I’m worn as her toothbrush hanging in the stand”). Clocking in at 5:13, it’s longer than most pop classics, but there’s not a wasted second, and the understated production never resorts to overblown kitsch. Oates’s aching verses are models of restraint before the harmony-laden hook takes hold and Hall’s soaring vocal turn elevates the song to another level. Oh, what went wrong? Nothing.
“I Could Never Take the Place
of Your Man,” Prince
“Crazy in Love,” Beyoncé
“There She Goes Again,”
“Love the Way You Lie,”
Eminem, featuring Rihanna
“Run Away With Me”
Carly Rae Jepsen
If there’s one thing worth salvaging the “Idol” franchise for, it’s this: the Canadian edition gifted the world with Carly Rae Jepsen. Her songs shine with the earthshaking power of tumbling into love, being so enthralled by another human being that the world feels lighter. “Run Away With Me,” from 2015’s “Emotion,” captures that sensation perfectly, sweeping you away from the second that dreamy saxophone riff leaves the ground. With production by a crackerjack team of Swedes and lyrics that would feel contrived if they weren’t so relatable, this song is a nugget of gold among the piles of forgettable mid-2010s dance-pop. Baby, take me to the feeling.
“Thirteen,” Big Star
“Let’s Dance,” David Bowie
“Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads
“We Found Love”
A perfect pop song never gets old. It transports you to the time in your life when you first heard it. Even your kid likes it, and a dance party breaks out the instant it comes on. It has big vocals, and it can never be too loud. In fact, the louder the better, so you feel it physically. And it must make you happy. Nothing does these things for me more than Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” I hear it and suddenly my fourth-grader is 3 again, we’re coming home from a Target run, and in the rear-view mirror I see her. The car is thumping, her red head is bopping, and she belts out: “We fell in love in a homeless place.” A new favorite misheard lyric. This perfect song created a perfect memory on an otherwise quiet Sunday. And now I have unconditional love for it, too.
“Just Like Heaven,” The Cure
“Smalltown Boy,” Bronski Beat
“Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service
“Keep the Car Running,” Arcade Fire
“Love Is a Stranger”
Part of the success of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” was fueled by the sight of lead singer Annie Lennox’s blazing orange crewcut as she stood in a cow pasture. But in the case of the duo’s 1983 follow-up single “Love Is a Stranger,” the strongest visuals are drawn from evocative lyrics and a throbbing, menacing synth line peppered with syncopated grunts indicating carnal misdeeds are afoot. The opening line, “Love is a stranger in an open car,” is sung by Lennox in a breathy, subzero chill, launching the tale of a woman who dispenses warnings about the dangers of love (“You have to receive it and you still can’t get enough of the stuff”) as she works through her own withdrawal from it. About two minutes in, Lennox begins unraveling, losing her composure and turning the song’s frosty refrain “And I want you so/It’s an obsession,” into a passionate plea. “Love Is a Stranger” is one of the finest examples of mechanized 1980s New Wave synth pop used to highlight the human condition.
“Bernadette,” The Four Tops
“Do It Again,” Röyksopp and Robyn
“Hold Up,” Beyoncé
“La poupee qui fait non,”
“That’s the Way of the World”
Earth, Wind & Fire
Most great pop records are about dynamics, duration, and craft. They shift gears — just ask James Brown: “Take it to the bridge!” They’re short — pop! They’re seamless — with gears to shift and brevity an issue, they have to be. “That’s the Way of the World” is different. It’s about groove, flow, and texture. That groove — oh, that groove — is unhurried, almost lazy, yet propulsive. It might predate Eden — and slink past the Apocalypse. That’s serious flow. Building from Larry Dunn’s keyboards, Verdine White’s heartbeat bass, and Maurice White’s quiet-storm drumming, the textures grow to include horns, locked-in rhythm guitars, and vocals, especially Philip Bailey’s otherworldly falsetto. There are strings, too, but by the time they enter God’s already in his heaven, and all’s right with “That’s the Way of the World.”
“I Ain ’t Particular,” Johnnie Taylor
“All I Want Is You,” Roxy Music
“So It Goes,” Nick Lowe
“Let’s Go,” The Cars
“Strawberry Letter 23”
The Brothers Johnson
It’s psychedelic, it’s futuristic. It’s a loping R&B ballad that’s clearly a product of the disco era. Mostly, though, it’s rapturously catchy, a mind-bending nursery rhyme for grown-ups. Originally written by the incredibly talented, sadly marginalized one-man genre Shuggie Otis, the song predicted Prince in its lush, purpley cover version by the Brothers Johnson, produced by the great Quincy Jones. Like all the best pop songs, surrendering to “Strawberry Letter 23” is like falling into a beautiful daydream. Forty years on, the song still feels like an instant bliss injection.
“She Loves You,” The Beatles
“I Want You Back,” The Jackson 5
“Ridin’ in My Car,” NRBQ
“Crazy in Love,” Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z
Many people view hit singles as a matter of fluff over content. A major exception is Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” It’s hard to imagine a more perfect single by any standard. Soul legend Otis Redding wrote it in 1965, but it was turbocharged by Aretha in 1967 and won two Grammys. She turned it into a feminist plea that also fit right into the civil rights movement. As she belted: “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you come home.” Then she spelled out R-E-S-P-E-C-T and boldly added, “find out what it means to me.” Even today, you can’t listen to it without feeling both chills and exaltation.
“Paperback Writer,” The Beatles
“Learning to Fly,” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
“She Works Hard for the Money,” Donna Summer
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” U2
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
& the Heartbreakers
Everything about this song works. Just the right amounts of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. The purr of the rock harmonica, those snarling opening guitar licks that make you wanna cock your head, sway your hips, swagger into the room like you own the place. “Oh my my, oh hell yes.” Lyrically, it’s a sparsely worded, near Hemingway-esque story of one kid’s heartbreak: Promiscuous new girl moves to town, flirts, and leaves: “She said, ‘I dig you baby but I got to keep movin.’ ” And now, suddenly, he’s “tired of this town.” In terms of story, it’s brilliant. Yet set to growling guitars and whining harmonica, it’s something you could sing at a party, arm around a friend, beer in your hand. Pop perfection.
“Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat,” Bob Dylan
“Harvest Moon,” Neil Young
“Handle With Care,” The Traveling Wilburys
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
By the time Big Star’s second album, “Radio City,” got any airplay in Boston in 1974, you could already find it in the cut-out bin at the Harvard Coop. Record label dysfunction, lousy promotion, and a series of not-great live shows to support the record ensured there would be no encore from singer/songwriter/guitarist Alex Chilton, who would spend the rest of his recording career zigging here and zagging there. But what a gift he and his two bandmates left us. “September Gurls” is the shiniest of the 12 gems that make up this pop-rock masterpiece, a lean 2:46 of chiming, hook-laden goodness with the kind of lyric content any lovelorn teen could identify with (“December boy’s got it bad”) while covertly expressing a grown-up point of view: One of those “gurls” Chilton was pining for was his ex-wife.
“Be My Baby,” The Ronettes”
“It Only Takes a Minute,” Tavares
“Head Over Heels,” Tears for Fears
“The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire
“Donald and Lydia”
“Donald and Lydia,” from John Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut, is one of the saddest, funniest, most tenderhearted short stories ever sung, and it’s definitely among the Top Five Songs About Masturbation of all time. We meet Lydia, the penny-arcade fat girl who reads “romance magazines up in her room,” which makes her feel “just like Sunday on a Saturday afternoon.” And we meet Donald, the pathologically shy PFC from the Army barracks down the road. The two are in love but they’ve never spoken, so Prine lets them share an epic, earthshaking bout of lovemaking hampered only by the fact that the lovers are 10 miles apart at the time. The finale, in which the two ascend into the heavens to a lyrical pedal-steel waltz, never fails to make me weep like a child.
“Willin’,” Little Feat
“I Know You Well,” Fountains of Wayne
“Waterloo Sunset,” The Kinks
“Ba Ba Boom,” The Jamaicans
He didn’t do it often because it was so easy, and what’s the joy in that? But sometimes, perhaps to keep Warner Bros. off his back, Prince would cook up — hastily, I’m sure — something tasty and insubstantial, the aural equivalent of meringue. The finest example — no, not “When You Were Mine” or “U Got the Look” — is “Raspberry Beret,” off Prince’s 1985 LP “Around the World in a Day.” Thirty years later, its swirling, psychedelic melody is still instant earworm, a boy-meets-girl story simply told, with Wendy and Lisa’s high harmonies and Prince’s feline squeal providing just what you want when you want it. I think I, I think I, I think I love it.
“Uncertain Smile,” The The
“If You Want Me To Stay,” Sly and the Family Stone
“He’s Misstra Know it All,” Stevie Wonder
“Teenage Dream,” Katy Perry
Some songs are instant mood changers. They’re so powerfully written and produced, they pull you into their own heightened emotional reality. The minute I hear “Heroes,” I am deep in a bittersweet movie about hope among the ruins, about going with love despite impossible barriers, about absconding with the moment. Based on the bravery of lovers from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall before it fell, the lyrics turn heroism into something personal and beautiful and possible. The song honors but fully transcends all political and historical meanings. It made perfect sense when Bowie sang it at the Concert for New York after 9/11.
“This Must Be the Place,” Talking Heads
“Coffee and TV,” Blur
”Ruby Tuesday,” Rolling Stones
“Coyote,” Joni Mitchell
“Get Back in Line”
In his pop prime, Ray Davies was a master teller of working-class stories. They were funny and sad, sarcastic and sincere, hopeful and resigned. Also, thoroughly British — sometimes to the point of obscurity (“God save Mrs. Mopp and good old Mother Riley”). Ray’s three-minute narratives were woven into achingly beautiful music anchored by his foil and occasional nemesis — brother Dave. This track — off 1970’s “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” — features a typical Davies character, someone of modest means and aspirations: “All I want to do is make some money and bring you home some wine.” But the poor guy’s at the mercy of a tyrannical union foreman, “the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve or I eat.” In the end, he’s back at the beginning — queuing for a job again, no closer to that bottle of Bordeaux for his sweetheart. A tad depressing, sure, but next up is the gender-bending rave of “Lola,” with its lines about girls being boys and boys being girls. And that’s a whole different story.
“She Sells,” Roxy Music
“Bigmouth Strikes Again,” The Smiths
“She Said She Said,” The Beatles
“Doctor Wu,” Steely Dan
“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”
Anyone who has a heart knows that you can’t really go wrong with the dynamic duo of Burt and Dionne (Bacharach and Warwick, that is). “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer for You,” and the lesser-sung “Check Out Time” are among my favorites, but “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is the one. Pop music’s most masterfully crafted empty promise, it’s got that perfect Bacharachian blend of control and abandon, darkness and light, happiness and hopelessness. Love, Ms. Warwick warns us, is a chance to get your bubble burst, to languish by the phone, to possibly even catch pneumonia. But it’s hard to take her doom and gloom seriously — seeing as how we’ve been shimmying this whole time: “You only get lies and pain and sorrow, so for at least until tomorrow . . .”
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Tears for Fears
“Everything She Wants,” Wham!
“A Little Respect,” Erasure
“Dreams Tonite,” Alvvays