Music is one of those things that will always evade our understanding. It doesn’t matter how many wordy album reviews you read or how many studies are done on the relationship between major keys and the brain’s release of serotonin, it’s simply impossible to grasp, on a logical level, the emotional effect a great song can have.
Every precise choice, from lyrics to key changes, can profoundly affect one person while making no impact on another. While we might not be able to understand it exactly, we can at least share the catharsis and ecstasy our favorite albums and tracks impart. These are 10 songs that give us goosebumps every time. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.
1. “Five Years” by David Bowie
As the opening track from one of David Bowie’s defining releases, the rock opera The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, “Five Years” toes the line between song and theater thanks to its gradual escalation and Bowie’s evocative, increasingly desperate vocal performance.
Before the orchestra rises and he begins sobbing and shouting the title, the song takes us through a world on the verge of apocalypse, which Bowie makes resonate using personal confessions like “I thought of Ma and wanted to go back there” as well as evocative details about “drinking milkshakes cold and long.”
2. “Yesterday” by Atmosphere
“Yesterday” sounds familiar for most of its three-minute run time, particularly for fans of rapper Slug’s confessional rhymes or collaborator Ant’s richly textured production. A lovely, tinkling piano riff joins propulsive midtempo beats and lyrics about a missed connection with what seems to be an unnamed ex-lover, until the song makes its big reveal.
I won’t spoil it here, but using a single lyric, Slug sucker-punches listeners with a piece of crucial new information that puts everything that’s come before into new context. Like any great twist, the power of that reveal is strong, even for repeat listens.
3. “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads
David Byrne of the Talking Heads called “This Must Be the Place” a “love song made up almost completely of non sequiturs.” It’s a testament to his powers as a lyricist that every non-sequitur resonates on the same level as the last, despite the fact that Byrne rarely traffics in romanticism over paranoia and alienation.
The gorgeous composition makes what could have been a simple ballad into a showcase for the band’s complex Afrobeat influences, a unique intersection of unique music and powerful lyrics that make “This Must Be the Place” a strong contender for my favorite song of all time.
4. “Spiritual” by Johnny Cash
I resisted the urge to go with Johnny Cash’s late period tear-jerking cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in favor of this unappreciated gospel gem from his album American II. The crisp production of Rick Ruben and the support of Tom Petty’s band elevates a gospel cover where Cash, demonstrating the formidable powers of his wavering baritone voice that only improved with age, wails to the heavens.
When recording this song, the singer still had a few good years left in him, but the performance makes it sound as though he’s already on his deathbed, pleading movingly for forgiveness and relief from his sins.
5. “Elephant” by Jason Isbell
A song about a friend dying of cancer is sure to raise a few hairs among listeners. But the most emotional three minutes of Jason Isbell’s confessional album Southeastern never feels manipulative when discussing this sad topic. It’s just honest. “Elephant” doesn’t dwell on the death or disease, so much as it chronicles the activities and revelry of friendship designed, as the song title suggests, to ignore death’s slow-but-sure embrace somehow.
6. “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem
LCD Soundsystem thrives not on rapid change but on gradual development, using infectious dance beats as lengthy vehicles for instrumental interplay and adding unexpected musical elements. “All My Friends” is the greatest slow build in the band’s repertoire, beginning with little more than a propulsive uptempo piano riff that expands so naturally it’s easy not to notice, especially when singer James Murphy’s impassioned lyrics about the beautiful hedonism and longing for connection that characterizes any good night out are just as involving.
7. “Here Comes a Regular” by The Replacements
Paul Westerberg, singer and lead scribe of The Replacements, is defined equally by the gravelly punk-rock wail of his rockers and the poignant pleas of his acoustic numbers. The contrast between the two adds a level of heartbreaking catharsis to tracks like “Here Comes a Regular,” which falls firmly in the latter camp.
Whether you’re paying attention to the echo of the lone acoustic strum or lyrics like “You’re just a picture on the fridge that’s never stocked with food,” the defining emotion of the song is loneliness.
8. “The Bleeding Heart Show” by The New Pornographers
An unlikely supergroup of Canadian indie rock sorta-hit makers, The New Pornographers uses a group-oriented approach to create impeccably-crafted power pop that conjures images and emotions using lyrics that don’t really add up to much.
The power comes from the melody and the passion behind it, not just from the words. I’m not sure what “The Bleeding Heart Show” is about, I just know I can’t resist the dramatics of all its three-part harmonies, group vocals, and gradual build from ballad to power pop anthem.
9. “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic
While we’re at it, why not get rid of the lyrics altogether? You don’t really need words to take an emotional journey through song — indeed, you don’t even need more than one instrument really. The legend goes that P-Funk mastermind George Clinton told guitarist Eddie Hazel to play imagining that “he had been told his mother was dead, but then learned that it was not true.”
The 10-minute solo that ensued is among the finest guitar-based tracks ever recorded; so good Clinton reportedly had the rest of the band stop halfway through so Hazel could carry what was supposed to be a jam on his own. The emotion and the spontaneity that inspired Hazel’s legendary solo somehow still comes through the track every time we hear it.
10. “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones
Few great bands have so obvious a pick for best song as The Rolling Stones. Their catalog is littered with classics, but what can compare to the thrilling bluesy menace of “Gimme Shelter?” The haunting harmonica and guitar solos create an undeniable atmosphere that commands your attention, but the song’s greatest moment doesn’t even come from a Rolling Stone.
It comes instead when soulful guest vocalist Merry Clayton’s voice unintentionally cracks on the line “rape, mur-DER!” Listen closely and you’ll hear Mick Jagger yell “woo!” in response, reacting to the magic of that spontaneous musical moment with all the enthusiasm it deserves.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf