Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Top Ten European Songs

In another of my completely subjective bimonthly surveys for e!Sharp magazine, I list the Top Ten European Pop Songs:

Top Ten European Pop Songs

By Craig Winneker

1. Imagine
John Lennon
Here we go again with another sure-fire argument-starter. Europe has a long and varied tradition of popular music going all the way back to the Middle Ages, when troubadours in tights roamed the landscape singing of chivalric deeds. But enough about Iron Maiden – we’re here to talk about the greatest pop songs the continent has produced.

Continent, you ask? Well, it’s true that by European pop songs, I mostly mean British, since the continent itself just doesn’t seem to really get what makes a good pop song. Sure, there is an occasionally worthy hit from Spain or Germany or France (usually it’s a novelty number), but most of the classics originate a few miles off shore. Fighting words? You’ll find me at the bar, humming Serge Gainsbourg.

So what is Europe’s greatest popular song? Well, I start off immediately with controversy, because even though I consider the Beatles the greatest pop group of all time, I think it would be wrong to pick one or even a handful of their songs for this list. It just isn’t fair to the rest of the genre. So I’ll give them their due by picking the best song ever written by one of their individual members. John Lennon once called “Imagine” an “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic” song, and it’s true that it is naive in the way that anything utopian is. But it still manages to be a superb pop-song, heartfelt and pure, melodic and catchy.

Rolling Stone magazine called “Imagine” the third greatest song of all-time (but it should be noted that their first two choices were a song with the words Rolling Stone in the title and a song by a band called the Rolling Stones). “Imagine” is a singular piece of music that manages to transcend the pop chart or the passing fad. Here’s hoping it will never turn up in an iPod advert.

2. Anarchy in the UK
The Sex Pistols
Sometimes referred to as the first punk song (though the Ramones had released “Blitzkrieg Bop” a year before, and the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” was in 1969, etc.), this classic nevertheless put punk on the map in Europe and around the world when it hit the charts in November 1976. The Pistols were terrible musicians but masters of satire and attitude; plus, they managed to show up for more gigs than Babyshambles.

With “Anarchy in the UK”, they didn’t so much as incite violence as strike and outrageous pose and crack a joke or two: “Your future dream is a shopping scheme”, and so on. It’s ironic now to consider that the standard-bearers for the punk movement were actually entirely a marketing creation. Some things never change.

3. 99 Luftballons
Released in 1983, this New Wave wonder reached the top of the charts in West Germany and in the UK. It also fared well in the US, in both English and German versions, thanks in part to a video featuring sultry Nena and her bottle-black hair in the halcyon early days of MTV. The song’s story line, about a nuclear war triggered when the military overreacts to a release of balloons, was all-too-timely; when it was released, the US was deploying Pershing missiles in West Germany and Europeans feared the breakout of nuclear war. Back then it had ominous political resonance; now we can be (mostly) thankful it’s just a sure-fire happy-hour sing-a-long.

4. One
An incredibly beautiful song from what is probably U2’s finest record, “Achtung Baby”, this song is a fan favourite that consistently makes lists of the best songs of all time. U2 legend has it that the band were on the verge of breaking up when they wrote it, but that discovering its gorgeous melody gave them a new sense of optimism. The song’s heart-wrenching lyrics have been interpreted in many ways –a lovers’ lament; Bono’s troubled relationship with his father; even an allusion to German reunification (the song was recorded in Berlin). Cover versions by Johnny Cash and Mary J. Blige are as memorable as the original.

5. My Generation
The Who
Roger Daltrey, at age 62, is still singing what must be Pete Townshend’s most memorable lyric: “Hope I die before I get old.” Now it can be served up with lashings of irony along with Townshend’s still ear-splitting guitar riffs. But when it first came out in 1965 “My Generation” was serious business, an expression of youth anger and frustration at boring old Britain. Daltrey’s distinctive stuttering on some of the words was meant to evoke a teenager on speed, but there was another reason for the unusual effect: In 1965, singing “Why dontcha all f-f-f...” was the only way to say the F-word – or at least imply it – and still get played on the Beeb.

6. Bohemian Rhapsody
Frequently voted in British and other European polls as the greatest pop song of all time. Well, maybe. But it’s certainly the most outlandish and, at times, irresistibly catchy. Plus, it has made “scaramouch” a household word. Combining elements of opera, metal, and soppy ballad, the song is five minutes and 55 seconds of pure bliss, courtesy of Queen’s legendary frontman, Freddie Mercury, and a couple hundred overdubbed backing vocals. An Indian Parsi born in Zanzibar, Mercury showed just how far a precocious colonial homosexual could go in Britain – all the way to the top – before his tragic death from AIDS in 1991.

7. Dancing Queen
Yes, you could make a case for “Waterloo,” which won the Eurovision Song Contest (one of the few times a song with any staying power has taken the top prize) and catapulted these Swedes to international stardom. But “Dancing Queen” is the better song by far, a pocket pop symphony worthy of Brian Wilson or Phil Spector. Released in the summer of 1976, it was soon topping the charts all over the world, and is the only one of ABBA’s many hits to be included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. When you’re on the dance floor, you can’t resist it..

8. Boys (Summertime Love)
Well, we had to pick one example of the disco novelty hit, a warm-weather tradition in Europe – proof that kids baked too long in the Ibizan sun will listen to anything. We might have chosen any number of other songs from the European (s)hit parade: “Aserejé (The Ketchup Song)” by Spanish girl group Las Ketchup, anything by the Spice Girls, or even that horrifically catchy Moldovan number that took Europe by storm a couple years back. But what the heck, we’ll take this one, from pneumatic Italian model Sabrina Salerno. “Boys”, a top-five hit all across Europe, was cranked out by the legendary production team of Stock Aitken and Waterman, whose chart successes by the likes of Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Bananarama can only be described as “craptacular”.

9. Comme d’Habitude
Claude François
The French have made many invaluable contributions to Western culture, but popular music is not, to put it mildly, one of them. Whether its depressing chanson, embarrassing novelty tunes sung by the Lolita-du-jour, or just lazy French translations of English or American pop hits (did we really need a Francophone “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”?), the French pop oeuvre is truly lamentable. There are a few exceptions, an occasional triumph from Brel or Gainsbourg. Legendary French performer Claude François specialized in French covers (“Si j’avais un marteau,” etc.). But with the classic “Comme d’Habitude” he scored a nearly unprecedented coup – a French song that would be translated into English as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. Your present author has made the French version his karaoke signature tune.

10. Whole Lotta Love
Led Zeppelin
Never mind that it was a blatant rip-off of a Willie Dixon song (a fact which eventually won the blues legend a court settlement) or that its fusion of irresistible riff with spaced out wank-rock would spawn hundreds of unworthy imitators and millions of garage-band wannabes. In fact, that’s the best thing about this song, Led Zeppelin’s first and biggest international hit. It gave birth to heavy metal as we know it – pompous and carefree at the same time, the music would become especially popular in communist eastern Europe, where it inspired mullets and moptops from Leipzig to Kiev. Long live rock.


Tippler said...

"Your present author has made the French version his karaoke signature tune."


Interesting use of the word 'tune', CW...

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Wot? No Stones? No party is complete without someone getting up and doing a Mick Jagger impersonation. Not in my old people's home anyway.

SpanishGoth said...

Personally, I agree with Daffers on this and the Stones should have made it (for me with Sympathy for the Devil)......

Soup Waiter said...

no thanks. you must be all living in Daphne's old people's home:

Ace of Spades; Motorhead
Black Night; Deep Purple
Paranoid; Black Sabbath
Angel of Death; Slayer
Caught in a Mosh; Anthraxx
Fool for your Lovin'; Whitesnake
Rock You Like a Hurricane; Scorpions
Holidays in the Sun (surely); Sex Pistols
Transylvania; Iron Maiden
Re-animator; Re-animator
Blackened; Metallica

not Pop Songs exactly, but at least it's a list of decent songs, and they don't need explanations. The good thing is I've got tons more were that came from: Temple of Love; Sisters of Mercy, for example.

Anonymous said...

- Toto Cotugno
- Eros Ramazotti
- Brassens
- Brel
- Adamo
- Laura Pausini
- Rammstein
- Anouk
- Joaquin Sabina
- Julio fuckin Iglesias
- Beethoven "Ode an die Freude"
- Kent
- Abba
- Kraftwerk
- Morrissey
- Juan Manuel Serrat
- Boudewijn de Groot

and many many more...

Unknown said...

Eros Ramozotti?! Possibly the biggest bag of shite ever recorded...

Anonymous said...

Don't listen to Tippler, CW - and don't get too big for your boots on that tune (which it most certainly is, and a marvellous one to boot). Have been in love with it since I saw Podium, one of the best comedies made in any language, and I can hold my own with 'Comme d'hab' these days.

You and I should duel sometime...;-)


Anonymous said...

Freddie Mercury was gay?

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