The 1,000 Best Songs on Spotify
A Spotify playlist can only contain 9,999 songs. That's the limit, much to the annoyance of a vocalgroupofusers. From the crate-digging record collector to the scrupulous mixtape crafter, there's a long tradition of obsessive list-making that's baked into our conception of pop music, which only intensified with the introduction of Napster and iTunes in the early '00s. In the streaming era, maximalism rules.
Which is how we arrived here. What would it look like for an individual to select the 1,000 "best" songs on Spotify? How would you organize it? How many Duran Duran songs would be on it? (Answer: three.) By limiting myself to the catalog on Spotify, a company founded in 2006 by a startup in Stockholm that now boasts 140 million monthly active users, I hoped to discover how the service shaped listening habits, genre trends, and ideas around taste.
Through a combination of intuition, calculation, research, lack of sleep, feverish Googling, and enthusiasm, I've attempted to cobble together a mini-history of modern music. But keep in mind that Spotify is an incomplete collection and I'm a flawed listener. (Here's proof: There's a song by Crazy Town on here.) For starters, the 1,000 songs on here pretty much all emerge from the late-20th century and are centered around American pop music -- broadly defined here as the intersection between rock, R&B, hip-hop, country, and electronica -- with digressions into other genres that will probably scan as entry-level or misguided to experts in those fields. Every playlist is a mirror. This particular mirror reveals I know shit about classical music.
So why read (or, more importantly, listen) on? Increasingly, streaming services keep listeners focused on the familiar. The algorithms that craft your weekly Discover playlist don't exist to challenge, stimulate, or provoke you. They're designed to keep you plugged in -- perhaps with "fake artists" and label-curated songs. In the hopes of making this massive list of songs potentially useful, I've used a few strategies to organize this list. The songs are divided into smaller playlists using the following criteria: genre, region, record label, topic/theme, mood, and, for 10 essential artists, by individual. You may not be familiar with all of the 1,000 best songs on Spotify, but if you have 77 hours and 2 minutes to spare, you'll find at least one song that expands your mind -- and maybe even add to your own list of 1,000.
Let's get this section, which will focus on 10 particularly impactful pop artists, off to a start with an artist who does the work, work, work, work, work, work in impeccable style. "Shine bright like a diamond," goes the chorus to Rihanna's 2012 hit "Diamonds." It's a philosophy that's served the Barbadian singer well in her years in the public eye. Early hits like "Umbrella" and "Disturbia" established her as a provocateur with a keen ear for pop trends: She could do laid-back dance-pop, DJ-ready EDM-lite, soulful R&B, and sing rap-song hooks. Producers could chop up, process, and warp her voice with technology, but an identity quickly emerged, one based around complicated notions of pleasure and pain. After the transition from hit-maker to more album-oriented artist with last year's Anti, she's firmly established her own sphere of cool. No one can block her shine.
Eighteen. It's hard to talk about Mariah Carey without mentioning that number, the amount of singles she's placed on the Billboard Hot 100. That's more than any other solo artist and second only to The Beatles, who had 20 No. 1 tracks on the charts. It's more than Madonna. More than Elvis. The scale of that accomplishment can turn discussions about Carey's artistic impact into a stat-driven sports-radio monologue -- the "who has more championship rings?" of pop discourse -- but, putting aside the staggering chart accomplishments and her recent singing competition hosting drama, the songs themselves simply hold up. The notes she hits on "Emotions." The "doo doo doo's" on "Always Be My Baby." The rhythmic gymnastics of "We Belong Together." These songs last.
It's become a cliché to observe that David Bowie was the great chameleon of rock music. But he didn't simply blend into the background of the genres he worked in; from his glam breakthrough to his Brian Eno-assisted art-rock journeys to his Nile Rodgers-produced funk to the jazzy goth waltz of his final record Blackstar, he was always remaking pop in his own image. More than his many classic rock peers, he was a cultural omnivore with an appetite for the strange. Unlike most chameleons, he had a tendency to devour his surroundings.
Writer and critic Margo Jefferson in her book On Michael Jackson: "As Freud says: 'You can also speak of a living person as uncanny, and we do so when we ascribe evil actions to him. But that is not all. We must feel that his intentions to harm us are going to be carried out with the help of special powers.' But who is Michael Jackson's double? Is it the brown-skinned self we can no longer see except in the old photos and videos? Is he a good man or a predator? Child protector or pedophile? A damaged genius or a scheming celebrity trying to hold on to his fame at any cost? A child star afraid of aging, or a psychotic freak/pervert/sociopath? What if the 'or' is an 'and'? What if he is all these things?"
Let's pause and remember that Prince had so much music flowing out of him over the course of his career that he seemingly launched other artists' careers by working on their albums for fun. In addition to his own wildly creative output, which stretched across 39 studio albums, he was penning and producing songs for The Time, Vanity 6, The Family, Sheila E., and more. Being prolific isn't necessarily a sign of genius. Neither is being a virtuoso. Prince's true gift was in using his own prolific tendencies and his virtuosic gifts to summon an entire musical universe of sex, pleasure, and funk.
Danyel Smith, writer and editor, (from her essay "When Whitney Hit the High Note"): "[Whitney] Houston is of course gone now, but she remains the ghost in the machine -- memorialized, memed, GIFed and in many quarters damn near prayed to. We have her massive ballads, and her bad reality TV, but her "Star-Spangled Banner" is much the reason for Houston's continued presence -- she boldly interpolated our anthem and sang it as well as it will ever be sung. Remember?"
There's a reason they called her the "Queen of Disco." While Summer's decades-long career stretched beyond the genre she's best known for, most of the songs on this playlist we're designed to keep you on the dance floor. Her first album, 1974's rock-influenced Lady of the Night, was co-written by Italian producer Giorgio Moroder but it failed to connect with audiences in a big way. When she re-teamed with Moroder and songwriter Pete Bellotte for 1975's Love to Love You Baby, she had a stronger grasp on what her sound would be: lush, intimate, and expansive. (The album version of the title track clocked in at over 16 minutes.) Summer's ability to sell big emotions over even bigger sounding music would only grow over the years with hits like "I Feel Love" and "On the Radio." Instead of being swallowed by the glittery production, she rose above it.
When the drums kick in on "Higher Ground," the infectious funk single from Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, it's impossible to remain still. Even before the percussion arrives, the unique baseline, which was created using a Moog synth, demands movement as a display of fealty. The song doesn't ask you to bend the knee -- it forces both legs to jitter. It's a full-body effect that Wonder achieved by writing, producing, and playing every instrument himself on the track. Those micromanaging tendencies have served him well throughout his career.
The achievements of Nina Simone are immeasurable. Many of her best songs chronicle the darkest truths of American life, turning a piercing and righteous light on injustice, violence, and racism. Take a track like "Mississippi Goddam": Lyrically, it's filled with anxiety and fear. "Can't you see it," she sings. "Can't you feel it / It's all in the air / I can't stand the pressure much longer." In addition to capturing the national mood, she was also a master interpreter of other people's song, able to find moments of tension, emotion, and drama in seemingly innocuous covers. Her take on "Here Comes the Sun" is stunning, a familiar song made strange through skillful reinterpretation.
If you attempt to build a playlist with the best Ray Charles songs on Spotify, you're going to run into some problems. Despite being a pivotal figure in R&B, country, pop, and rock music, the Georgia-born singer-songwriter has a catalog full of enormous holes on the most popular streaming service. While the hits from his early Atlantic years are present, albums from his ABC Records days, published between 1960 to 1972, are rare. That means no The Genius Hits the Road, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, or Crying Time. This isn't something that the Spotify-curated "This Is: Ray Charles" playlist notes. In fact, that's one of the downsides to thinking of Spotify as an archive: The interface has no method of accounting for felt absences besides the community pages where users occasionally inquire about missing albums. For many, if it's not on Spotify, it doesn't exist.
The goal of grouping so many of these songs by genre isn't to limit musicians and songs to a specific set of signifiers -- the tyranny of genre is real -- but to hopefully wrestle with what these terms mean. This genre, coined to identify the more rock-like honky-tonk music of the '70s, can be both emotionally bracing ("I'm Not Lisa") and darkly humorous ("I'm Getting Stoned"). These are country songs as Raymond Carver character sketches, portraits of folks fallen on hard times and undone by their own desires. While it's easy to dismiss the "outlaw" angle as a macho marketing tic -- and it can certainly be one at its worst -- the songs collected here don't posture with a cigarette dangling out of their mouths. They just get down to business.
Miles Davis, jazz trumpet player and composer (in his autobiography Miles): "Most of what had happened up until this time in small group playing had come down from Louis Armstrong through Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins to Dizzy and Bird, and bebop had basically come from that. What everybody was playing in 1958 had mostly come out of bebop. Birth of the Cool had gone somewhat in another direction, but it had mainly come out of what Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn had already done; it just made the music 'whiter,' so that white people could digest it better. And then the other records I made, like 'Walkin'' and 'Blue 'n' Boogie' -- which the critics called hard bop -- had only gone back to the blues and some of the things that Bird and Dizzy had done. It was great music, well played and everything, but the musical ideas and concepts had mostly been already done; it just had a little more space in it."
The 1960s were a period of wild experimentation in jazz: Established masters like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were refining (and subverting) their signature sounds, while newcomers like Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders were discovering whole new galaxies of experimentation. Again, this is a case where the sheer amount of material generated during this period means there are some galling gaps on Spotify -- I couldn't find any great Anthony Braxton albums -- but that doesn't mean you can't embark on your own, to borrow a phrase from Herbie Hancock, "Maiden Voyage" on the platform. As intimidating as getting into jazz can be for neophytes, this period, with its wild instrumentation (Sun Ra!) and fusion tendencies (Tony Williams!), can be a welcoming place for newcomers to find their footing.
The specter of psych-rock looms large over contemporary rock music: groups like Tame Impala, MGMT, and the Moon Duo still take listeners on vivid, guitar-driven (and, yes, often substance-assisted) journeys in dorm rooms, parked cars, and empty fields across America. The influence has entered the mainstream, too, with Miley Cyrus releasing her album of wonky, Flaming Lips experiments Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, and Rihanna dropping a Tame Impala cover in the middle of her last record. (Could a Katy Perry collaboration with Hawkwind be far off?) Hopefully, this playlist, which mostly sticks to the 1960s, helps you get in touch with the genre's mind-expanding roots.
If you've ever read Please Kill Me, the hilarious and revealing oral history of punk's early days in New York, it's hard to get too romantic about the era. It was a squalid period filled with big personalities doing drugs, having sex, and treating each other like dirt. (At one point in the book, Stooges manager Danny Fields delivers the closest thing the text has to a thesis: "All musicians are assholes.") Leave the nostalgia and the myth-making for that awful-looking CBGB movie and just listen to the actual songs made by groups like Television and The Ramones, which remain as gripping and visceral as ever.
"Post-punk" is an elastic term applied to acts who don't seem to have that much in common beyond a sense of adventure. The propulsive, crushingly loud shout-rock of Mission of Burma? The doom-soaked, gothic new wave of Siouxsie and the Banshees? The sinewy, angry political art-funk of Gang of Four? All post-punk. These groups reject the relative musical simplicity of punk rock's first wave, building a knottier, more conceptual vision of what music could look like. (One caveat: There's very little of Cleveland post-punk lifers Pere Ubu on Spotify. Good for them.)
There's so much pleasure getting lost in a reggae playlist. The vast history of Caribbean music, which continues to impact the pop charts, makes it ideal for the click-and-stream nature of the internet. If you start your day reading a little about Sister Nancy's "Bam Bam," which was sampled on Kanye West's "Famous" last year, you'll quickly find yourself watching random dancehall videos on YouTube, diving into Wikipedia k-holes, and reading an interview with Marlon James, the author of the sprawling and spectacular crime novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, about his favorite tracks. No better way to jam the day away than in the melodies and textures of Jamaica's sensational sonic export.
Joni Mitchell, singer-songwriter, (in a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone): "I was only a folk singer for about two years, and that was several years before I ever made a record. By that time, it wasn't really folk music anymore. It was some new American phenomenon. Later, they called it singer/songwriters. Or art songs, which I liked best. Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it's a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, words are only symbols, and the word art has never lost its vitality. It still has meaning to me. Love lost its meaning to me. God lost its meaning to me. But art never lost its meaning. I always knew what I meant by art. Now I've got all three of them back."
Classic girl groups
Here's an underrated thing about Spotify: There are so many compilation albums available to pluck tracks from. For some people, the era of the iPod was primarily about organizing your music library by artists, which often made downloading and listening to compilation records unappealing. Who wants to add a bunch of artists to your device with only a single song under the tab? In the streaming era, there are countless collections waiting to be explored, particularly within singles-dominated genres like the girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s. Let those killer vocal harmonies sweep you away.
Anthony Heilbut, writer and record producer (in his book The Gospel Sound): "The spirit is an elusive thing. Sometimes a church service strains to evoke it for several hours. Other times it comes almost as soon as the congregation gathers. Suddenly the entire church is on one wavelength, caught up in the same moment that expands to contain the smallest, most personal detail. In a kind of emotional shorthand, the hums, moans, and screams make profound sense: 'That's all right, honey.' 'Help yourself, son,' the church calls to itself."
This 10-song playlist is 104 minutes long, which gives you a sense of krautrock priorities. Duration is important to these German rock pioneers, particularly the way a synth or a guitar line can mutate over an extended period of time. The motorik, the word for the steady 4/4 beat that powers many of the genre's best songs, creates a space for both reflection and concentration. The Faust song "Krautrock," which I grabbed because the first three Faust albums from the '70s are no longer on Spotify, works as a not-so-cleverly-named introduction. (Note: Kraftwerk appears elsewhere on this list. I didn't forget them.)
Let's get this out of the way first: King Crimson is one of the best progressive rock bands ever and you won't find their records on Spotify. I don't bring this up to suggest the English group should submit to a deal with the company, but to note that when people talk about streaming services as "infinite libraries," they're doing a disservice to the truth. You can attempt to capture the excesses of progressive rock by making a playlist packed with Yes, Gentle Giant, Rush, and The Soft Machine. You can put an epic track from Animals by Pink Floyd on there. You'll get all the eccentric instrumentation, the multi-part song suites, the tricky time signatures, and the hyper-specific lyrics packed with esoteric references. But without Crimson you're telling an abridged story.
Bootsy Collins, bass player for James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic (in a 2012 interview with NPR): "Funk is the absence of any and everything you can think of, but the very essence of all that is. And saying that, I'm saying funk is anything that we create in our minds that we want to do, what we want to be, but we don't have the resources. We don't have the money to get these things. But it takes the belief, it takes her mama's prayers, it takes a community, it takes all of that to help build a mug's confidence in himself. Because we've been torn down so much, it's like we don't even believe in ourselves no more. So it takes all of that. And that's what funk is. Funk is that driving force that you know is there when ain't nobody else there, and you can create the things you need."
At its most effective, disco achieves a unique communal power. Growing out of nightclubs and parties, the songs have an implied purpose that drives the robo-rhythms, piercing horns, sharp strings, and funky guitar lines: Shake your ass. Move your feet. Dance, idiot. While some still associate the music with the fraught cultural wars of the '70s -- the "disco sucks" T-shirts and Chicago's disco demolition night -- its legacy is more than meatheads blowing up records. A catchy song like Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" speaks to the genre's ability to ground individual desires and needs in larger ideas of connectivity and shared space. It's not that disco erases important distinctions in pursuit of pure schmaltz; instead, it offers a vision of oneness achieved through movement and more than a little sweat.
Few types of music have risen from object of ridicule to cult status as effectively as Italo disco, the occasionally cheesy, mustache-sporting genre that grew out of the '70s dance music explosion. Tracks like Cyber People's "Void Vision," which rides an alternatingly goofy and sinister synth part for seven delirious minutes, won't sound strange to fans of Daft Punk or LCD Soundsystem, two groups that have celebrated Italian disco in the past. Be like the robot in the Mr. Flagio song on this playlist, and take a chance.
Brian Eno, musician and producer (in a 2017 interview with Pitchfork): "For me, the central idea [of ambient music] was about music as a place you go to. Not a narrative, not a sequence that has some sort of teleological direction to it -- verse, chorus, this, that, and the other. It’s really based on abstract expressionism: Instead of the picture being a structured perspective, where your eye is expected to go in certain directions, it’s a field, and you wander sonically over the field. And it’s a field that is deliberately devoid of personalities, because if there’s a personality there, that’s who you’ll follow. So there’s not somebody in that field leading you around; you find your own way."
In a recent article, Music Business Worldwide outlined how Spotify fills many of its more relaxing playlists -- like "chill" or "peaceful piano" -- with "fake artists" who have no digital footprint outside of the service. That means alongside a composition from acclaimed minimalist composer Max Richter you might find an original track that was commissioned from a "real" musician and then given an alias on the playlist. It's all very strange, and points to the ethical concerns of Spotify as an all-powerful curator. Anyway, the artists on this playlist are all real. I'm not secretly John Cage.
Call it "yacht rock." Call it adult contemporary. Just don't call it "bad" anymore. Over a decade ago, Paul Rudd threatened to "Yah-mo burn this place to the ground" if he had to listen to Michael McDonald one more time in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but tastes change. Now the "I Keep Forgettin'" singer is sitting for a lengthy interview with Vice, playing Coachella, and collaborating with young musicians like Thundercat. If you need further proof that every music genre will one day get its respectable revival, this is it.
Celia Cruz, singer and the "queen of salsa" (in a 2002 interview posted on The Katz Tapes): "Salsa has roots in Cuban music. So you can’t say they’re different [from other Latin American music]. Because you play Cuban music with piano or conga or bongo or timbales. The major instruments that are used in Cuban music are the same instruments that you use to play what we call salsa. Except when I started the instruments weren’t electronic. Now the musicians play electric keyboard, electric guitar. But when I was starting out we didn’t have electric guitars. We had to play with a grand piano. We had another kind of sound, but it has stayed essentially the same. Sure, we have new arrangements, we have new songs, new styles, but the music is essentially the same."
"Tropicália became a tornado capable of stirring the plant grafts, fertilizers, nutrients, and compost of the subsoil of the country," Tom Zé, the Brazilian songwriter, told Pitchfork last year. "It stirred up the guts deep in Brazilian soil and allowed budding brain activity to thrive." It's difficult to think of a music genre that's so tied to a short, specific time period and place -- in this case, it's Brazil in the late 1960s -- and had such an impact on a global level. While American audiences might only recognize the word "Tropicália" from that Beck song off his Mutations record, the textures of the genre reach far and wide.
Part of the appeal of Latin jazz is in hearing the familiar features of bebop -- the emphasis on the rhythm section, the complex harmonies, and the space for solos -- paired with percussion instruments like congas, bongos, timbales, and the claves. "Clave" itself is considered "the key" to understanding Afro-Cuban jazz, while Afro-Brazilian forms like bossa nova and samba have their own formal idiosyncrasies. However, don't let the terminology scare you away. This is music that connects with the head and the heart in equal measure.
West Coast jazz
"West Coast jazz" is a term associated with "cool jazz," which encompasses a strain of swing-indebted post-bop made in the 1950s and beyond. (In his autobiography, Miles Davis put it this way: "It was the same old story, black shit was being ripped off all over again.") But, for the purposes of this playlist, I'm stretching the term here to include a range of contemporary acts based out of California. Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat each display how the building blocks of jazz continue to be remixed with elements of funk, electronic music, and hip-hop. Mostly, it sounds cool as hell.
Buddy Guy, blues guitarist and singer (in a 2015 interview with NPR): "I worry about the future of blues music whether you are black or white. If they don't hear it like I did and listen to it and don't know about it -- you ever been to Louisiana where they cook all this gumbo? So if you never tasted it, you wouldn't love it. That's what's happening with the blues. Now, the young people don't know nothing about it unless -- I know satellite [radio] do play blues, but we need more than that. I tell everybody I would love to hear Muddy Waters twice a week. I'm not telling you to play him all day, all night; just play him. Let the young people know where it all started."
The phrase "roots rock," a descriptor coined in the '80s along with bizarre offshoots like "cowpunk," isn't terribly exciting. It makes you think someone is about to pull out a genealogy chart and explain their family history to you. But the artists on this playlist, which spans almost 50 years, aren't interested in American blues, rock, and folk traditions out of some tedious obligation. They're driven by a passion that shines through in the voice of Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes. She's not interested in providing a history lesson.
The chorus of "I Can't Stop Smiling," the infectious track from Maryland's Velocity Girl, is as succinct a summation of power pop as you'll ever find. Try listening and not grinning like an idiot. Even when the groups on this playlist turn to more melancholy ideas -- like the sad-sack protagonist of The Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl" -- they still can't hide their enthusiasm. That's the power-pop way. The Bangles, purveyors of harmony-filled throwbacks, put it best: "I won't feel bad at all when the hero takes a fall." When everything sounds this good why would you ever feel bad?
Don't dismiss New Wave as the piano-key necktie of music. Like post-punk, it's a concept that can be applied to a wide range of artists that emerged from the wreckage of punk rock in the '70s and '80s. While post-punk had a cold, cerebral edge to it, New Wave was distinguishable by its playfulness and irreverence. Beguiling, turtle-filled videos broadcast on MTV at all hours of the day helped establish the genre's cheeky, hairspray aesthetic, but when stripped of their imagery, these songs take their true form: brilliant pop songs.
The power of most great synth-pop songs can be partially attributed to the tension that exists between the electronic squeals of the keyboard and the raw emotions behind the lyrics. It's what separates the genre from the stark churn of post-punk, which also used synths to great effect. In a 2009 essay for the Guardian, critic Simon Reynolds notes how synth-pop "evoked a bright, clean future just round the corner rather than J.G. Ballard's desolate 70s cityscapes." The dance floor provides a place of hope and redemption. Even the saddest songs, like Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye," exist in a utopia.
The best genre descriptions sound like what they are: The word "thrash" brings to mind angry imagery and the bands that work in the genre, like Megadeth or Slayer, more than deliver on that front. The album titles, the song names, and the artwork are working together to evoke a mood of annihilation. (Unfortunately, the album Eternal Devastation by the German thrash group Destruction isn't available on Spotify.) There's a therapeutic quality to listening to a song called "Raining Blood" and nodding along that can't be overstated.
If thrash metal is a raptor hunting for prey, then stoner metal is a lumbering brontosaurus just looking for some space to chill. Maybe under a leafy canopy. With some snacks. While some of the artists on this playlist fall more into the "doom" region of metal than the "stoner" side, the intention is still clear: They want to fuck you up with heavy riffs. Even if a name like "Bongzilla" or "Weedeater" makes you giggle, those laughs will fade in the face of the gnarly feedback these bands can unleash. Surrender now. The big greens-loving dinosaurs have you surrounded.
Nardwuar the Human Serviette, Canadian interviewer (in a 1998 interview with Black Flag singer Henry Rollins): "I was also curious about the best way to bulk up because the salad bars have now been shut down in a lot of places because of the E. coli poisoning? And I was also wondering if you ever worked out with Roky Erickson? I was also wondering what new tattoos you've got, Henry. And I'm also wondering if you get bigger, if it's a possibility you'll be able to get more tattoos actually on your body? Those are the questions that are up there against Henry Rollins because you say I only get one question and perhaps you can pick the ones you enjoy most. Or I can recite them again to you again, Henry Rollins, here in Vancouver, BC, Canada."
"We'd keep our heads above the blackened water," sings Anne Clark on "Our Darkness." "But there's no room for ideals in this mechanical place." She wasn't kidding around. Uniquely tied to the experimental spirit of post-punk, industrial music is often brutal, cold, and unforgiving. The animalistic howl of Nine Inch Nails figurehead Trent Reznor or the processed screams of Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen are meant to channel rage and utter despair. But there's light to be found: Think of that bubbling synth on Throbbing Gristle's "Hot on the Heels of Love" or the impish humor of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. It's not all kerosene and burned-out landscapes.
Cataloging noise music can be challenging because of the many sub-genres -- power noise, harsh noise, drone music, etc. -- but it's especially challenging on a platform like Spotify. Noise musicians are often ridiculously prolific, releasing records and tapes on small labels at a wild clip. (If you like this playlist, I recommend perusing the "noise rock" and "noise" tags on Bandcamp to discover new artists.) For the purposes of this list, I'm mostly sticking to artists that lean harder on the "rock" side of the binary like Sonic Youth, Jesus Lizard, and Deerhoof. But watch out: The Merzbow track on here might crush your brain.
Cliff Poncier, an aspiring musician in Seattle (portrayed by Matt Dillon in the movie Singles): "Where are the anthems for our youth? What happened to music that meant something? The Who at the Kingdome, or Kiss at the Coliseum... Where is the 'Misty Mountain Hop,' where is the 'Smoke on the Water'... Where is the 'Iron Man' of today?... Look at this, most of these bands are like well-designed bottles of bleach. It's beer and lifestyle music! I mean it's like the next world war will be sponsored by I don't know, what!"
The joy of twee pop is infectious. Even when the emotions explored in the songs are painful, there's a giddiness to the soundcraft that keeps you afloat. In a history of twee published on Pitchfork in 2005, writer Nitsuh Abebe summed up the twee era of the '90s by describing "happy pop geeks in love with all things pretty, listening to seven-inch singles released on tiny labels, writing songs about crushes, and taking a good deal of pride in the fact that everyone else found their music disgustingly cute and amateurish and girly." It's a lovely image, one that's been carried into the present in new forms by groups like Los Campesinos and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the continuous work of zines like Chickfactor. There's no reason twee can't get old, too.
Sorry. (Not sorry.)
Those guitar tones! They hit you like clouds floating over a ravine. Shoegaze is an entire mini-galaxy of rock music tied to the image of bands performing in a stationary, statue-like state. Just glaring at their "shoes," you know? In retrospect, it's a pretty stupid way to discuss or market music, but the songs that emerged from the period, like the swoon-worthy ballads of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive, are as captivating as the more polished grunge records that followed in their wake. The emphasis on feedback, drones, and distortion makes it perfect headphones music, a refuge from the stress of day-to-day drudgery.
Noel Gallagher, lead guitarist for Oasis (in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone): "I still can't get enough of Seinfeld. It's still the best thing that's ever been filmed. It reminds me of the '90s -- good times. I was the only person in England who was watching it! That's a fact. Certainly the only person in Manchester who watched it. I identify with Jerry. When I met my wife 15 years ago, she'd never seen it, and I was like, 'If we're going to be together, you've got to be into this shit, because this is important.' Luckily, she fuckin' loves it."
Nineties indie rock
Many of these tracks are "meat and potatoes" indie rock: hearty, guitar-driven, and vaguely introspective songs that will fill you up. For the most part, they were crafted in places like the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, or North Carolina, regions adrift from the major label hot spots of New York or Los Angeles. That idea of independence as both a political virtue and a potential liability has faded in recent decades -- it's never been easier to slide an "indie" track next to a major label artist on your playlist -- but the larger sentiments linger. The songs linger, too.
Geoff Barrow, instrumentalist for Portishead (when asked about trip-hop in a 2011 interview with the AV Club): "Any music that was sold as trip-hop was shit. You have Massive Attack, which was British street soul music, which was very Bristol based. And then Tricky, which was the punk, a real true Bristol poet, and who continues to be a real Bristol poet. All the other stuff was kind of made by record companies that thought Bristol was cool. Terrible, terrible. A lot of record deals. In America it was called 'electronica.' I remember people who couldn’t get arrested in England getting massive label deals because they were just full of shit. They were talking electronica to American labels."
New jack swing
Teddy Riley, co-writer and co-producer of Keith Sweat's "I Want Her" (in a 2016 interview with Billboard): "I’m just this kid from Harlem who was taking a chance on experimenting. The new jack swing name was coined by writer Barry Michael Cooper. He told me, 'You have to give it a name so people can follow it.' Barry later co-wrote the screenplay for the film New Jack City. I didn’t know what Barry meant until people started saying new jack swing. Us people who take chances, we’re just following our dreams and don’t know where we’re going to end up. I ended up having a genre. That’s crazy."
If it's good enough for Magic Mike, it's good enough for this list.
Like so many genres on this list, the concept of "neo-soul" was dreamed up as a marketing hook. More specifically, it was coined by of Motown Records executive Kedar Massenburg, who was D'Angelo's manager and also helped usher Erykah Badu's 1997 breakthrough record Baduizm. Like post-punk, it's a catch all term for music that draws out connections between different styles: elements of hip-hop, jazz, funk, and old-fashioned soul live together in these songs. They're united by a playful, inspired understanding of black music.
Pop music is obsessed with youth, so it only makes sense that some of the most important artists would be actual teens. While the marketing hook "teen pop" is often associated with hits from the '90s like Britney Spears' "... Baby One More Time" or Hanson's "MMMBop," there's a long lineage of child prodigies turning into adult super-stars. (Soul elder statesman Stevie Wonder was once "Little Stevie.") But the arrival of the Disney star machine and the subsequent rise of data-driven music apps musical.ly means that teen pop has become both weaponized and democratized. It's the circle of life: As your favorite teen stars decay, a new younger (likely savvier) crop will take their place.
Garth Brooks is sticking to his guns and not licensing his music to Spotify, which means any playlist attempting to tell the story of the intersection between country and pop will be missing a few key chapters. (Also: no Chris Gaines!) But pop country is bigger than any one dude in a 10-gallon hat. The work of artists like Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, and the Dixie Chicks give you a sense of how this ideologically fraught genre has developed over the years. While the production might sound slick and polished, the subject matter can be just as personal (and, in the case Martina McBride's "Independence Day," deadly) as any rough-hewn cowboy anthem.
Paradise Garage, the legendary New York nightclub located in an actual parking garage, was the home base of DJ Larry Levan, who would perform sets that were known as "Saturday Mass." His fans spread the gospel far and wide -- so far, in fact, that "garage," which was stylistically similar to the house music developing in Chicago, soon became an obsession in England. Mostly a phenomenon of the '90s, UK garage songs like Artful Dodger's "Movin' Too Fast" and Mis-Teeq's "Why?" use vocals to anchor these twitchy, ephemeral beats in the here and now.
The guitar remains a fascinating instrument. These 10 tracks, which span over 50 years, provide a snapshot of how fingerstyle players, avant-gardists, and post-rock innovators have pushed the limits of what you can do with a few strings and years of practice. But these compositions are more than displays of virtuosity: The best wordless guitar songs are as emotionally compelling as a poem, a painting, or a film. They transport you one twang at a time.
As Chase Rice sings on "Ready Set Roll," these songs hit like a fireball shot: They're sticky, sweet, and a little embarrassing. But this is not a place to feel shame about your love of bro-country. "It’s easy to make fun of bro-country, but in at least one respect it’s cosmopolitan," wrote Jody Rosen in a New York Magazine article about the rise of the genre. "Listen to [Luke] Bryan, [Jason] Aldean, and [Jake] Owen, and you’ll hear a surprising sound: hip-hop." The rhythmic quality of bro-country, which is probably best personified by the go-for-broke shotgun-a-Red Bull energy of Florida Georgia Line, shouldn't be ignored.
Navigating K-pop on Spotify requires some dedication. While there are popular playlists that regularly update their selections with the latest hits from artists, the pages for noteworthy artists often have multiple versions of the same albums that have been repackaged into new versions. Some bands like Girls' Generation are missing whole albums. Also, groups signed to JYP Entertainment, the influential South Korean recording company behind Got7, 2AM, and JJ Project, aren't available on the service at the moment. Still, there's enough K-pop to carve out a spot in the top 1,000.
This might be the most easily mocked genre on this list, so that can only mean one thing: It's time for a revaluation! Most rap-rock, especially anything described as "nu-metal," is pretty terrible -- and some might accuse me of stretching the definition of the term to include something like Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" -- but you know what else is pretty terrible? Most of everything. That doesn't mean we should overlook the Judgement Night soundtrack or dismiss the Rage Against the Machine discography. Even rap-rock has its nuggets.
In this captivating 1986 interview, David Letterman asks Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, about the early days of his legendary Memphis label. He rolls his eyes and leans back in his chair. "Why certainly David," he drawls. "But you've gotta work for this a little while tonight, son. I don't give away all my secrets." In the decades since, books and movies have demystified the label quite a bit -- there's even a CMT show about it where Chad Michael Murray plays Phillips -- but the mercurial appeal of the roster Phillips put together still casts a spell on the public's imagination. In addition to Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the label was a temporary home to a range of lesser-known talents. You've just gotta work a little while to discover them.
Labels have always been a particularly nerdy and fun way to think about music history: These businesses sign artists, release records, and cultivate careers. The best labels establish distinct musical identities that create a sense of trust in the consumer. Stax, the famous home of Memphis Soul, was one of those enterprises, a long-running institution that did battle with Detroit's Motown Records across the 1960s. While Spotify lets you search for artists, album, and song names, they've yet to introduce a feature that lets you search for labels, which may feel like a small thing but will surely affect how music is cataloged in the future. Thankfully, there are enough compilation albums to light the way. For now.
The sound of Motown, the Detroit-based soul music label founded by Berry Gordy in 1959, evokes a series of striking images. Streaming one of the many best-of compilations (Motown: The Complete No. 1's, Motown 50 Fanthology) or one of the available playlists ("Motown Party," "Motown Love Songs") whisks you away to a world of women in shiny dresses, men in freshly pressed tuxedos, and children joyfully dancing on television screens. The power of these visual reference points doesn't detract from the music. They accentuate it.
Cash Money Records
This is a stellar example of how Spotify creates a distorted version of history. You can find plenty of user-made playlists celebrating the legacy of New Orleans rap mainstay Cash Money Records, but the early albums from the Hot Boys, the group Lil Wayne was in as a teenager, are nowhere to be found. Neither are curios like Chopper City, the debut record from "Bling Bling" rapper B.G. (Similar holes exist in the depths of Master P's No Limit Records catalog as well). There's another factor at play: Lil Wayne is an important artist who did his most inventive work on free downloadable mixtapes that will likely never appear on a giant streaming service because of copyright issues. As streaming services grow and more fans abandon their MP3s, will these accomplishments continue to fade from the public consciousness?
Cities often serve as hubs of musical inspiration -- and sometimes they even get a song out of the deal, like the song on this playlist that's literally titled "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)." Pretty cool, right? The impulse to declare a track as reflective of an entire urban area is impressive. The actual "sound" of Philly soul -- exemplified by the lush work of The Spinners, The O'Jays, and The Stylistics -- is rooted in the meticulous production techniques of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the songwriting team that established Philadelphia International Records. David Bowie fans know the sound; Philly soul played an instrumental role in his 1975 record Young Americans. But the city's luscious, horn-filled arrangements deserve to be treated as more than footnote in the Thin White Duke's long career.
Chicago house music
Frankie Knuckles, DJ and record producer (in an interview with the Red Bull Music Academy): "I was in a car with a friend of mine, going to his house on the South Side and we were at a stoplight. There was a tavern on the corner with a sign saying: 'We play house music.' That was the first time I heard of it. Well, I saw it. I asked him what it was and he said: 'It’s the music that you play down there at your club.' [Laughs] I was: 'Excuse me?' 'That’s house music.' 'Oh, I didn’t realize it had a name.' 'Well, it’s the House, that’s everybody’s nickname for it.' That was the first time I really felt like I belonged in Chicago, that I was part of the city. The fact that people had given it a nickname, that they thought of me and that music together all in one."
Like house music in Chicago, techno emerged from a very cold location in the MidWest: Detroit, Michigan. It's important to draw a connection between the Motor City's history of mass production and the shiny, mechanical purr of the best techno tracks that emerged in the 1980s. ("The refusal to allow machinery to dictate human activity unites the shop floor and the dance floor," read a recent New York Timesessay on the subject.) But what's most impressive about the work of innovators like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Robert Hood is the way their music explores rich emotional territory while keeping your head nodding with each futuristic thump.
Any discussion of LA hip-hop and Spotify should begin with the fact that Dr. Dre's The Chronic isn't available on the platform. The former N.W.A. member and his Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine sold their company to Apple for $3 billion in 2014, and all of Dre's solo music -- except for the comeback album 2001 -- lives comfortably on Apple Music, one of Spotify's most prominent rivals. There's still plenty of bristling, defiant LA rap to enjoy, including young artists like Kendrick Lamar, YG, and Earl Sweatshirt, but building a playlist like this without The Chronic is a bit like painting a picture of a rose without the color red.
New York hip-hop
Like LA and Dre, Spotify is missing one of New York hip-hop's most recognizable voices: Jay-Z, a prominent stakeholder in the subscription-service Tidal, recently removed his music from the platform. If you want to listen to "Can't Knock the Hustle," you'll have to pony up for Tidal, plug in your external hard drive with all your MP3's, or find your CD binder. And that's fine: obviously, New York rap has always been way bigger than Jay-Z. If anything, this should just give you an excuse to listen to M.O.P.'s "Ante Up," the song most likely to convince you that you can lift a truck with your bare hands and toss it like a pebble.
Bun B, rapper and member of hip-hop duo UGK (in a 2016 interview with Complex): Houston really started to have its own identity [around 1996]. We realized that we didn't have to look like, or sound like, or be like anybody else down this way. Being from Port Arthur we came and really took in the whole vibe of Houston and saw the whole dynamic that was happening between the north and the south sides, and we saw the influence of the [DJ] Screw tapes, and all of that kind of culminated into what our third album, Ridin' Dirty, is. Ridin' Dirty is really about the lifestyle of a young cat, in the city of Houston, riding in one of these candy cars, living this lifestyle day to day."
It's hardly provocative to point out that Atlanta has driven the sound of contemporary hip-hop for years. In addition to the continued commercial dominance of Future, and the reemergence of a slimmer post-prison Gucci Mane, younger artists like Lil Yachty, 21 Savage, and Migos have climbed the rap singles chart with styles that often sound like they came from different planets. Yet, they all come from Atlanta, the city that produced Outkast, Goodie Mob, T.I., Lil John, Jeezy, and, yes, Ludacris. Never forget, Luda.
Bay Area hip-hop
When the Golden State Warriors won the 2015 NBA Finals, the rapper E-40 emerged as a celebrity ambassador for the team. In his glasses, baseball hat, and yellow sweatshirt, he was a perfect portrait of civic pride. But he's been an enthusiastic booster for his city for longer than the Warriors have been winning Championship rings. Similarly, the slang-filled, laid-back tradition of Bay Area rap will outlive the start-ups, quirky CEOs, and tech-bros now associated with the area. The beauty of a track like "93 'Til Infinity" can't be contained by an app. Or a streaming service.
Songs to play at a BBQ
Things might get a little looser -- and, in some cases, a little goofier -- from here to the end of the list. To kick it off, here are some songs that just sound good outside when you're hanging out with friends...
Songs to play in a cabin by yourself
... and then there are certain songs that should be listened to in an isolated cabin in the woods.
Songs about war
The "protest song" brings to mind a series of clichés involving acoustic guitars, bearded hippies, and folk ballads. While many of those songs are excellent, they present a limited range of how musicians deal with military intervention. On "Political Science," the ever-cynical Randy Newman gets apocalyptic on your ass by being droll and ironic. "They all hate us anyhow," he sings over a sweet piano. "So let's drop the big one now." Forty years later it still hits like a nuclear warhead to the chest.
Songs about peace
Not all songs about peace have to exist in opposition to war. For example, "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys might not appear to be a song "about" peace, but it is peaceful. It creates a pocket of contentment for listeners to slip into. Many of the songs on this playlist cast a similar spell, giving examples of what peace might look, sound, or feel like instead of outright demanding it.
Songs about revenge
There are plenty of reasons to seek out revenge -- being betrayed by a lover, a friend, or a business partner -- but there's one tried and true method of getting it: writing a nasty song about it. Sometimes that means literally shouting "fuck you," like CeeLo does on the track of the same name, or taking shots at a rival by saying "no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity" like Taylor Swift does on "Better Than Revenge." In Miranda Lambert's case, it means killing her ex and his new girlfriend. Brutal.
Songs about God/religion
There comes a point in the lives of most significant artists when they wrestle with God. The way a musician approaches theological questions often reflects on how they see the world: For Madonna it's as a metaphor for sexual pleasure, for Kanye West it's a battle with the self, and for Chance the Rapper it's about realizing there's no Twitter in heaven. In the case of Seattle metal group Sunn O))), spiritual matters become massive walls of feedback and distortion. Choose your own path.
Songs about heaven
The video for Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" is wild. For one thing, it's filled with little kids wearing Eyes Wide Shut masks, which gives the whole thing a sinister vibe. But that feeling of dumb is multiplied by the way those same children carry glowing globes of Earth and do coordinated dance moves with them. It's like an Illuminati-addled hallucination straight from the brain-pills-powered mind of Alex Jones. (In fact, there's an article on InfoWars that explicitly states "heaven is a place on Earth" is one of the "4 Things Globalists Think You're Too Stupid to Understand." ) And the craziest part? It was directed by Diane Keaton. Yes, the same Diane Keaton who starred in films like Annie Hall, The Godfather, and Something's Gotta Give. She also directed one of the best episodes of Twin Peaks Season 2. What a world!
Songs about the devil/hell
You're wrong, Kevin Spacey. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people to write so many good songs about him.
Songs about partying
One of the most effective ways to make sure a song gets played in clubs is to write a song about being in a club. Whether it's a rap anthem like 50 Cent's "In Da Club," a disco track like The Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancing," or a hard-rock rager like Andrew W.K.'s "Party Hard," these dance-floor missives interrogate a simple idea: It's more fun to party. Or, at the very least, it's more fun to think (and sing) about partying.
Songs about drugs
Long before Mike Posner took a pill in Ibiza, musicians were finding new ways to describe their experiences with a litany of substances. Sometimes drugs are a metaphor for a larger philosophical idea -- sex, loneliness, or alienation -- but they're often stand-ins for the intrinsic power of music itself. Sometimes there's a purposeful ambiguity around what's being sold. "Patty cake, patty cake, I'm the baker's man / I bake them cakes as fast as I can," raps Malice on Clipse's "Grindin'" "And you can tell by how my bread stack up / Then disguise it as rap so the feds back up." Either way, it will get you high.
Songs about space
Space: It's still the final frontier. Though Modest Mouse might think intergalactic travel is "boring," most artists aren't so quick to dismiss the appeal of strapping yourself to a rocket and soaring through the stars. Though you can't listen to "Teenage Spaceship" by Smog -- the band's Chicago indie label Drag City remains a Spotify holdout -- there are still plenty of ways to musically walk on the moon, battle aliens, or just float for a while. No space helmets required, but headphones are recommended.
Songs about photography
The invention of the camera transformed music. Suddenly, artists could sing about images, memories, and nostalgia in a new way, funneling their anxieties about photography into songs that explored the medium with wit and sentimentality. While Ringo Starr is bummed out that he's only got a photograph to remember his ex-lover by, the twitchy modernists in Spoon find that when they turn their camera on they also turn their feelings off. Xzibit, rapping in his pre-Pimp My Ride days, is even less excited about taking a selfie: "See, I don’t need no lights, no cameras; just action, goddamn it / Never no superstar, I'm more like a planet." A planet that doesn't want his picture taken, apparently.
Songs about phones
Like the camera, the telephone has driven many musicians to madness. These are their stories.
Songs about cars
These are not songs about the movie Cars. Apologies for any confusion.
Songs about nature/weather
Rock music is often discussed using language drawn from the elements: songs "blow" you away, sounds travel in "waves," and singers want to light your "fire." People often complain that weather-related small talk is boring, but nature is serious shit. Avoid it -- and the killer songs on this playlist -- at your own peril.
Sometimes the constellation that surrounds a band can be just as interesting as the band itself. In the case of Kurt Cobain, a towering figure of '90s alternative music, the covers he performed, the artists he cited in interviews, the songs he inspired, and the early influences he wrote about in his journals are often as compelling as the slim discography Nirvana left behind. It's what makes artists who aren't shy about name-checking their inspirations so fascinating: They provide a roadmap for fans to follow.
Songs with wicked saxophone parts
Is this a genre? It should be.
Movie soundtrack songs
We're no longer living in the era of the blockbuster soundtrack. Though movies like 50 Shades of Grey and Guardians of the Galaxy still move units, the period where you discovered all your favorite new bands on the American Pie soundtrack is officially over, and it's probably not coming back. Oh, well. You'll always have that Lisa Loeb song from Reality Bites to comfort you in times of darkness.
Songs with "love" in the title
Remember the "Elephant Love Medley" from Baz Luhrmann Moulin Rouge? The one where Ewan McGregor bursts out into singing a bunch of different songs with love in the title and then also sings David Bowie's "Heroes" and changes the words for some reason? This is like that, but, uh, much better.
Songs with "hate" in the title
A brief list of things the artists on this playlist hate: sports, rock 'n' roll, being here, being sober, making the choice to walk away, themselves for loving you, and, just to have all the bases covered, everything. Hate it or love it, I'm just glad The Game has a spot on this list.
Songs with "sex" in the title
The-Dream, producer and songwriter (in a 2010 interview with Vibe): "I feel like I have to be a sex symbol in a certain format because everybody is always asking me to make ‘Another one of them baby-making albums.’ It’s influencing [sex]. When you pick up my album, I don’t think anyone thinks anything besides, ‘Yeah we’re gonna fuck’ [laughs]. So in some type of way I must be a sex symbol. But I’m not getting my sit-up on or anything, I’m just putting it down."
Food as sex metaphor songs
Songs by artists with "big" in their names
Putting "big" in your name promises a certain amount of sonic ambition. It's a little like Babe Ruth pointing his bat in the stands: Only do it if you think you're going to reach a certain level of popularity. While not every artist on this list became a household name -- Big Star remains an underground favorite -- they all took big swings. Go big or go home, as the saying goes.
All bands should be legally required to write a song that's named after their band. Let's establish some ground rules: It doesn't have to serve as a grand statement of purpose and it doesn't have to be on a self-titled record. Also, this is only for groups; I don't think individual artists should have to follow the rule. (It'd be weird if Drake had a song called "Drake.") Anyway, in the distant future I will be running for president on the "every band should have a self-titled song" platform. Please vote for me.
Songs named after famous people
I just want to use this space to note that Action Bronson's "Larry Csonka," named after the Hall of Fame Miami Dolphins fullback, is not on Spotify. How am I supposed to enjoy this playlist without "Larry Csonka" on it?
Songs with body parts in the titles
This playlist has the hips of Shakira, the well-protected neck of the Wu-Tang Clan, the much-coveted back of Sir Mix-A-Lot, and... the hands of the dudes from Interpol. Honestly, I'm not sure this would be the most effective musical Frankenstein, but I think it's a good mix of songs.
Songs about endings
A playlist is a living document. Even if I'd like to think that I'm setting these 1,000 songs in stone, an artist or a label could remove their catalog tomorrow and inadvertently re-shape the order of this list. One only needs to look at the shaky financial situation of SoundCloud, a truly unique streaming ecosystem, to get a sense of how impermanent streaming platforms are as archives. Digital castles can fall. Then get rebuilt. What gets lost along the way?
The ever-changing situation reminds me of the writings of Jace Clayton, an essayist who also creates music as DJ /rupture. In his recent book Uproot, an essential text for understanding digital music culture, he grapples with these questions. "It's always eye-opening to follow the money, but when we let questions of profit displace questions of cultural stewardship, the discussion goes flat," he writes. "The cornucopia of recorded music constitutes an unthinkably vast array of different types of expression, all of which have something to say about what it is to be human. A lot of weird, unclassifiable stuff is out there, and only a fraction of it is meant to be commercialized."
He ends the paragraph on a hopeful note: "Corporate containers can't hold the Infinite Library and shouldn't try to." For now, we have the occasionally exhilarating, occasionally maddening tools of services like Spotify to help us make sense of the past and the present. Who knows what the future will bring? At some point, a 1,000 song playlist might look small and quaint. Start building your billion song playlist now.
You can find the full 1,000 song playlist here or stream it below.