The Kinks didn’t make the same headlines as many of their contemporaries, despite a promising start and a string of hits, and they often descended into relative obscurity even as they were producing much of their best work and influencing future bands. One of the greatest bands of the British Invasion transformed into one of the best bands of all time thanks to an extended and endlessly rewarding back catalog riddled with mature themes and uber-melodic pop rock sensibilities, much of it due to the emotional, personal songwriting of band leader Ray Davies. Let’s celebrate one of the most quietly spectacular bands in rock history by counting down 10 of the best Kinks songs.
10. “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”
Ray Davies contributes one of his greatest melodies and one of his most exciting lyrical themes for a song that was initially released only as a B-side before being released on several compilations and as part of the farewell live record, To The Bone. Even before that lengthened performance, which allows the powerful solos the time they need to breathe, the song felt like a band anthem for the way it references the band’s inability or unwillingness to do what was expected. The chorus might sound arrogant coming from someone else, but it sounds entirely justified coming from someone with the songwriting prowess of The Kinks’ Ray Davies.
9. “Little Bit of Emotion”
After their late ’60s heyday (during which time they languished in relative obscurity), The Kinks got off track for a stretch of albums that focused on fey showtunes instead of the straightforward delicate rock they so excelled at. 1979’s Low Budget was their return to form, and the five-minute ballad “Little Bit of Emotion” feels like one of the centerpieces of the album and of Ray Davies’s entire career as a songwriter. The beautiful humanism of the lyrics, wherein Davies wonders about the boundaries we create between each other because of our fear of being vulnerable, is complimented by the crooning music that builds up to include a belting saxophone that makes the track feel oddly anthemic for a song so painfully personal and honest.
8. “You Really Got Me”
Before they became heartfelt crooners and devotees of British tradition, the Kinks were one of the most explosive bands of the British Invasion. Their early energy and influence is perfectly captured on this classic of early rock and roll, an infectious hook drenched in some of the earliest guitar distortion ever recorded in popular music. The raucous energy of “You Really Got Me” is still as electrifying and just plain fun as ever so many years later, even after it helped to inspire the entire genres of punk and hard rock.
7. “Sunny Afternoon”
The Kinks were masters of the character study, and “Sunny Afternoon” is one of their greatest, a first-person tale of a drunken dead-end wife beater who just wants to be left alone. The dark premise became one of the band’s greatest hits, thanks primarily to an immediately identifiable descending bass line and a chorus that might sound suitably, uh, sunny if one ignores the rest of the lyrics. Regardless, the song is a great summation of the rich lyrical content the band brought to pop rock, disguising darkness with irresistible melody.
6. “The Village Green Preservation Society”
While many of their contemporaries were reaching peaks in creativity and popularity, the Kinks released one of their crowning achievements to far less fanfare. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society didn’t catch people’s attention because it focused on the disappearing culture of the English countryside instead of the far more trendy psychedelic topics, but it’s aged like a fine wine for its loving, nostalgic yet thoughtful portrayal of a simple world that was disappearing in the modern era. The title track is one of the sunniest, funniest, and catchiest of the bunch for its warm wall of sound production and clever lyrics that present the Kinks as protectors of the good ol’ days.
Another opening track to another of the Kinks’ greatest feats of music and storytelling, “Victoria” sets up many of the themes of the album Arthur, focused on Britain’s imperialism and oft-hypocritical involvement in World War II, in between choruses that are easily among the most infectious the band ever recorded, which is really saying something. The electric blues guitar riff, raucous background vocals, and brassy instrumentation make the song one of the richest three-minute musical accomplishments in the Kinks’ enormous catalog, a crowd-pleasing sound that never obscures the sharp satire of the lyrics.
“Strangers” is the sort of winning ballad that feels at once incredibly intimate and impossibly big. Dave Davies’s tortured vocals soar over a perfectly harmonious acoustic guitar and piano riff that builds satisfyingly throughout, lending resonance to powerful lyrics that seem to be about nothing and everything simultaneously. Nonetheless, every lyric packs an emotional punch that adds up to one of the most moving deep cuts in the history of pop and rock music.
3. “Waterloo Sunset”
“Waterloo Sunset” stands as one of the Kinks’ greatest and most popular songs primarily because the lyrics and music so perfectly capture a sort of melancholic yet hopeful mood that is otherwise impossible to pin down. With a crooning chorus and lovely instrumentation to compliment lyrics that aren’t about much more than observing a couple and watching the sunset over the Thames, the song is one of the best intersections of Davies’s intimate songwriting style with his considerable, oft-overlooked pop sensibilities. Combine that with a simplified but nonetheless distinct sound, and you have one of this band’s greatest achievements.
2. “Celluloid Heroes”
A great song can be about so many things at once. “Celluloid Heroes” is a great song. It’s about the way we idolize celebrities and look to entertainment for escapism from the harsh realities of life, the sacrifices those same celebrities make for the sake of entertainment and fame, and a single, legendary street in Los Angeles. One of the Kinks’ longest songs and prettiest marriages of music and lyrics, Davies has time to touch upon so much in a brief six-minute song that builds and builds and builds in emotion and intensity as he alternates between various refrains and inventory of the stars of yesteryear.
1. “This Time Tomorrow”
The Kinks are a band defined by their dense back catalog, so of course the top song on this list should be a deep cut from an album that more famously produced the hit “Lola.” “This Time Tomorrow” is one of the greatest songs about travelling ever written, its lyrics encompassing the loneliness, the majesty, and the simple beauties of jet-setting around the world. The song opens with the lonely sound of an airplane taking off, and is then guided by a guitar and banjo that keep building magnificently to the endlessly listenable, deeply affecting chorus. It’s a kind of relatable melancholy that even outdoes more popular Kinks songs like “Waterloo Sunset.”
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