A chronologically-ordered, steadily-expanding Spotify playlist of, in my very humble opinion, the greatest pop songs of all time. Apart from “Biology” which is officially The Greatest Pop Song of all time. That much is not in dispute.
How would you define “pop music”?
Wikipedia quotes British < air_quotes > musicologist < / air_quotes > Simon Frith, who says that ‘pop music is produced “as a matter of enterprise not art”, is “designed to appeal to everyone” and “doesn’t come from any particular place or mark off any particular taste”. It is “not driven by any significant ambition except profit and commercial reward.”’
It’s okay as a definition goes. Bit long-winded. There’s a much shorter definition in the book “Pop Music: Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the Digital Revolution” which simply says that pop music is “commercial, ephemeral and accessible”.
To begin with I started off by choosing my eleven greatest pop songs of all time. It took me hours and I was still unhappy about the songs that I missed out. I tried to choose songs which a) were commercial, ephemeral and accessible, and b) made you want to sing along, tap your feet, or do a little chair boogie. They’re not the best, technically; they just give you that feeling, one that you can’t get from films, books, or muesli.
And then I thought, why limit it to 11? I decided I would keep adding just THE very finest pop songs to this list and to prevent it from turning into V2.0 of The Pop Anthology, I decided that whenever I add a new song, I would write a little piece explaining why I added it.
You lucky people.
“Help!” – The Beatles (Help!, 1965)
I wasn’t always a fan of The Beatles (I’m more of a Stones man (Rolling, not Bitter)). I still don’t get it when people tell me that McCartney and Lennon are geniuses and if you’ve ever wanted to see a human spontaneously combust, just keep telling me how amazing “Imagine” is. However, “Help!” is the one glimpse of genius that I do get when I look at their back catalogue. The vocal harmonies are just immense and “Help!” was officially the best pop single up until the release of “Biology”.
“I’m A Believer” – The Monkees (More of The Monkees, 1966)
The Monkees get an unfairly bad rap. Yes, they were formed for a TV show, but so were Girls Aloud and they have Officially The Greatest Pop Song Of All Time. No, they may not have played all their own instruments (to begin with) or written all their own songs, but in 1967 (the year after this came out) they outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. In the end what matters is the music they left behind and both this song and it’s B-side, “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, and bona fide classics.
“Waterloo” – ABBA (Waterloo, 1974)
If you ever wanted to see a human spontaneously combust twice, continue on from “Imagine” by telling me how amazing the Eurovision song contest is. I’m not having it. “Waterloo” may be ‘the quintessential Eurovision song, according to Dr Harry Witchel, physiologist and music expert at the University of Bristol’, but the fact remains that it’s the only good thing that Eurovision has ever produced. If Brexit means that we no longer have to suffer it, then someone pass me a Ukip membership form.
That said, “Waterloo” is bloody amazing but surprisingly it’s not even ABBA’s top selling song – that honour goes to “Fernando”, which at 10 million sales is double that of “Waterloo”. Who’d have thought it?
“You Should Be Dancing” – The Bee Gees (Children of the World, 1976)
The song that we all associate with Barry Gibb’s trademark falsetto and the Saturday Night Fever. But did you know that a) Gibb didn’t even sing with a falsetto up to this point and b) it wasn’t written for Saturday Night Fever? A mine of hopeless information I am, sorry, Wikipedia is.
“I Wish” – Stevie Wonder (Songs in the Key of Life, 1976)
You could probably create an eleven greatest pop songs of all time playlist just from the album “Songs in the Key of Life”, let alone Mr. Wonder’s back catalogue. What swings it for me in favour of “I Wish” – as opposed to, say, “Sir Duke” – is that brass section at the end. How you can sit still to that, I just don’t know. If you can find it there’s a quite terrific mash-up of both Stevie Wonder and Skee-lo’s songs called “I Wish” – I found one here on Soundcloud but I reckon there’s a higher quality version out there somewhere.
“Atomic” – Blondie (Eat to the Beat, 1980)
If you ask me again tomorrow, I’ll have swapped this for “Rapture”. In fact there’s a good chance that by the time you do read this, I’ll have swapped “Atomic” and “Rapture” round. So, the question in your mind is, what came first – “Atomic” or “Rapture”? You’ll never know. That’s how fickle I am.
“Can You Feel It” – The Jacksons (Triumph, 1980)
Another one where I wobbled a lot. Should I go with “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”, “Shake Your Body Down (To The Ground)”, or this? For me, apart from being Just Bloody Great it also has the added pang of nostalgia for the weird synchronised dance that we used to do down the under 18s disco back in the 80s. Shame the video is ruined by those weird sound effects.
“Church of the Poison Mind” – Culture (Colour by Numbers, 1983)
Helen Terry’s gospel-like counterpoint singing just gets me every time. Every – single – fucking – time.
“Two Tribes” – Frankie Goes To Hollywood (Welcome to the Pleasuredome, 1984)
In an alternate universe, “Two Tribes” was the last single ever made. That’s because in that alternate universe, everyone in the music industry is still creating remixes of “Two Tribes”. As far as Wikipedia goes, these are the listed versions and remixes: 7” Cowboys and Indians, 7” We Don’t Want To Die, Annihilation, Surrender, Carnage, Hibakusha, Keep The Peace, Live At Madison Square Garden, Fluke’s Minimix, Don’t Want To Die, Fluke’s Magimix, Fluke’s Magimix instrumental, Intermission Legend, Intermission Legend instrumental, Intermission Workout, Intermission Workout instrumental, Fluke’s Moulimix, Teckno Prisoner, Rob Searle Club Mix, Apollo Four Forty edit, Rob Searle Club Mix radio edit, Olav Basoski’s Tiberium Power Mix, Rob Searle’s Club Dub, Almighty Definitive Remix, and the Almighty Radio Edit. The best one, by the way, is the Annihilation mix, especially if you like the narrated voiceover. It has everything and two kitchen sinks, as Mark Radcliffe once said about a completely different record.
“I Feel Love (Rollo and Sister Bliss Monster Mix)” – Donna Summer
The original of “I Feel Love” can justifiably claim to be the greatest 12″ single of all time. It invented the genre, for heaven’s sake. But because I have a contrary bent I’ve decided not to put the original Patrick Cowley extended mix – all fifteen minutes of it – on my Poptastic playlist and instead plumped for this mix by OTT 90s euphoric trance auteurs Rollo and Sister Bliss.
What it has in common with many other tracks on this playlist is that it’s so extra. The extended intro, the orgasmic ‘oooooohs’, the chords, the drums… there’s just so much going on. It’s the whole of 90s’ UK dance music happening all at the same time. Utterly incredible.
“Girl A, Girl B, Boy C” – My Life Story (Mornington Crescent, 1995)
I appreciate this is a leftfield choice. Sometimes leftfield choices can be a bad thing, like taking Theo Walcott to the 2006 World Cup or overlooking Alaska Thunderfuck5000 from the planet Glamtron for season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Sometimes though, such as when naming “Girl A, Girl B, Boy C” from My Life Story’s debut album “Mornington Crescent” amongst the greatest 11 pop songs of all time, it can be a really great thing. My Life Story made a weird crossover between pop music, britpop, chamber music and opera that combined the lyrical wit of Wilde and Shaw with old-fashioned Hollywood glamour, but they were only briefly famous when “Sparkle” appeared on the “Shine 6” compilation; which is to say, not at all. They did regularly get 10,000 people attending their gigs, but the stark fact is that 9,990 of those were on stage as Jake Shillingford added more and more instruments to their songs. Still, the music they left behind is completely unlike anything else. Apart from The Divine Comedy. If you like tracks like “National Express”, you’ll love My Life Story.
“Spice Up Your Life” – Spice Girls (Spiceworld, 1997)
Distilled sugar cane byproducts. Carbonated water. Sugar cane juice. Citrus aurantifolia. Mentha sachalinensis. When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound terribly appealing; but when you call it a Mojito, something magic happens. And that’s a bit like “Spice Up Your Life”. The singing is shit, the lyrics are trite, the level of musicianship is Key Stage 2, the choreography is depressing, the wardrobe is upsetting, and Victoria Beckham. But put them together, slam it to the left, shake it to the right and then look what you have! You can’t not sing along, just like you can’t not order another Mojito when you’ve already had three. Shout out to the 12” mixes, especially the David Morales mix. Epic.
“Crazy in love” – Beyoncé (Dangerously in Love, 2003)
Take the world’s biggest female star and get her to sing over the funkiest bit of the funkiest record from one of the funkiest bands from the funkiest decade of all time. It’s not rocket science, is it? Do I have to think of everything?
“Biology” (Chemistry, 2005)
The most perfect pop song since The Beatles did “Help!” and officially The Greatest Pop Song Of All Time. It eschews the traditional ABAB, verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure of most pop songs in favour of a more avant garde ABCDEFAF, intro-verse-bridge-another bridge-is this the chorus or the bridge-no wait this is the chorus-hey this is the intro again does that mean it was a verse-oh crikey it’s another chorus-goodness me I need a lie down structure. The whole thing is Quite Magnificent and the fact that it didn’t even make number one in the chart shows a collective, country-wide stupidity that would manifest itself a dozen years later as a vote for Brexit. Don’t say you couldn’t see it coming, the signs were there all along.