Note: In the age of the mp3, as popular music becomes disassociated ever more from long-playing albums, and is consumed in cannibalized fashion, as individual tracks set in opposition to each other in idiosyncratic ways, or arranged increasingly in user-defined playlists, I've come to think more and more about what are the essential popular songs of the past fifty years that every mp3 player should have. I'll add them here as I find time to write a short blurb on each, in no particular order. Imagine my list as a playlist of essentials on shuffle play.
"Life During Wartime" by Talking Heads (1979)
No playlist is complete without a little art-school nerd-dom. Everybody knows this song, even if they can't name the title properly. It's the chorus that stays with you, a hook for the ages in the "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, etc" refrain. And of course, by the ageless criteria of American Bandstand ("It's got a good beat, and I can dance to it, Dick."), the tune's a winner. But pay attention, too, to the lyrics in the verses if you've not in the past. They're vaguely political in capturing the chaos of battle (hiding out, carrying multiple passports, dressing in disguise), while turning emotionally on the existential edgy-nerviness that I think of as David Byrne's stock in trade. ("Psycho Killer," anyone?) An essential track on all accounts to get my pantheon going.