1. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
You know what would really get Neil Young’s goat? A response to his thoughtful, political “Southern Man” that basically says, “Oh yeah, Neil? We ain’t innerested in yer progressive views no-how!” And thus was born “Sweet Home Alabama,” which cracks Young with the cutting line, “I hope Neil Young will remember / a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” The song also references Governor George Wallace in what might be construed as a positive light, though Ronnie Van Zant claimed it was misinterpreted, and that his song was more complex than it’s usually given credit for.
2. Drive-By Truckers, “Ronnie And Neil”
The story of “Sweet Home Alabama” didn’t end with the death of Ronnie Van Zant; so epic was the song’s impact that, decades later, Drive-By Truckers dissected its origins (albeit with a few historical inaccuracies). On Southern Rock Opera, Patterson Hood, defending the legacy of Van Zant while also embracing Neil Young, namechecks “Southern Man,” “Alabama,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and, for good measure, “Powderfinger,” all with a passion that belies the ambiguity of the whole affair. It’s one of the band’s best songs, and one that wouldn’t exist without Hood’s fierce feelings about its main characters.
3. Warren Zevon, “Play It All Night Long”
A considerably bleaker take on “Sweet Home Alabama” can be found on Warren Zevon’s 1980 album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. Typical of Zevon’s cynical take on both celebrity and the simple pleasures of American life, “Play It All Night Long”—cited by David Letterman as the only popular song in American history to mention the cattle disease brucellosis in the lyrics—paints a dreary portrait of life on the farm (“There ain’t much to country livin’—shit, piss, jizz, and blood.”) Then, in the chorus, the dagger to the heart: “‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” Zevon sneers only two years after the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant; “play that dead band’s song.”
4. The Beatles, “Glass Onion”
John Lennon purposefully added nonsense lines to “I Am The Walrus” to mess with fans and critics who were over-analyzing Beatles lyrics, looking for hidden meanings and drug references. Even though Lennon sang the words and played the walrus in the “I Am the Walrus” video and in Magical Mystery Tour, the band further tweaked listeners with the line “The walrus was Paul” in The White Album’s “Glass Onion.” The song also references “Strawberry Fields Forever” (“I told you about strawberry fields / You know the place where nothing is real”), “Lady Madonna” (“Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah”), “Fool On The Hill” (“I told you about the fool on the hill / I tell you man he living there still”), and “Fixing A Hole.”
5. Veruca Salt, “Volcano Girls”
In 1994, the Chicago alternative group Veruca Salt scored a success with its first single, “Seether.” The band referenced the song in a later hit, the 1997 song “Volcano Girls,” with the lyrics “I told you about the Seether before / You know the one that’s neither or nor / Well here’s another clue if you please / The Seether’s Louise.” That’s obviously an homage to the Beatles’ “Glass Onion”—the title of the band’s second album, Eight Arms To Hold You, was the original title of the movie Help—and like “Glass Onion,” was also probably a misleading joke, as Nina Gordon sang lead on “Seether,” not Louise Post.
6. Built To Spill, “You Were Right”
On 1999’s Keep It Like A Secret, Doug Martsch used lots of classic-rock inspiration to build “You Were Right,” a slow-moving piece of dramatic distortion that weaves together lyrics from 10 well-worn songs. The chorus finds Martsch disagreeing with Bob Marley’s assertion in “Three Little Birds” that everything’s gonna be all right, but the rest of the time the indie guitar god has history on his side in his quest to humorously prove that life pretty much sucks. Quotes come from “Stairway To Heaven,” “Dust In The Wind,” “Another Brick In The Wall,” “Manic Depression,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Against The Wind,” “Jack & Diane,” and “The End,” and closes with Martsch asking repeatedly, “Do you ever think about it?” That life’s a bitch? Yeah, Doug, we think about it all the time.
7. Billy Bragg, “Old Clash Fan Fight Song”
Leftist rocker Billy Bragg has never been shy about his politics or his taste in music. His songs are threaded with homages overt and covert, from the wistful evocation of the Four Tops’ singer in “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” to the punning Kinks nod he launches at the target of “Accident Waiting To Happen”: “You’re a dedicated swallower of fascism.” (They’re not all great ideas: Sub Pop disliked Bragg’s “Blueberry Hill”-flavored cover of “Mansion On The Hill” enough to cut it from its Springsteen tribute album.) Bragg’s referential nature reaches its apex, or perhaps its nadir, with this 2007 benefit single, released under the pseudonym “Johnny Clash.” The story of aging punk-rockers trying to balance their system-smashing ideals with the responsibilities of middle age, the song opens with the story of a “mate who lives in Vermont” and “couldn’t find the music he wants.” The solution? Start a radio station of his own, on which he “plays Billy Bragg and a bit of Green Day / and ‘I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.’” Although “Old Clash Fan” is basically celebratory, there’s a melancholy truth beneath its surface about the way that pop-culture badges that once signified political conviction become an identity in themselves. Bragg has had his strident moments over the years, but for once he’s cutting his audience too much slack.
8. Clem Snide, “Yip/Jump Music”
Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay loves to sing about pop culture, from “Nick Drake Tape” to “Enrique Iglesias’ Mole.” On “Yip/Jump Music,” from 1998’s You Were A Diamond, Barzelay sings about driving through Texas playing “that tape, makes us feel all right.” The tape is Daniel Johnston’s 1983 classic Yip/Jump Music, which features the song “Worried Shoes.” Barzelay sings, “Heard you were wearing worried shoes, and they’re too tight.” For an update of the original song, check out Karen O’s version on the Where The Wild Things Are soundtrack.
9-10. Jimmy Eat World, “A Praise Chorus” and “The Authority Song”
In addition to being tourmates, Jimmy Eat World and The Promise Ring were a couple of late-’90s emo’s best bets for mainstream success, though at the time most people had their money on the latter. JEW, of course, was the one that struck gold with Bleed American (which became self-titled due to 9/11, but returned to the original name when it was reissued a couple of years ago), whose live-like-you’re-dying second track, “A Praise Chorus,” is littered with titles or lyrics from other songs sung during a cameo by The Promise Ring’s Davey von Bohlen, including his own “Why Did Ever We Meet” and “All Of My Everythings.” Other references include “Crimson And Clover,” Madness’ “Our House,” Bad Company’s “Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy,” They Might Be Giants’ “Don’t Let’s Start,” and Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart,” but for some reason JEW’s Jim Adkins waits until his buddy has rattled them all off before exclaiming, “So come on, Davey, sing me something that I know!” Later on the album, the emo-goes-sock-hop “The Authority Song” joins in the name-checking fun, with John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Authority Song,” The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Automatic, and The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” all getting shout-outs.
11. The Beastie Boys, “Three MCs And One DJ”
The Beastie Boys are so generous in tipping their hats to their collaborators and influences that they’ll bury a mention of one artist in a song about another artist. In the 1998 homage to DJ Mix Master Mike in Hello Nasty’s “Three MCs And One DJ,” Mike D notes, “Kenny Rogers’ ‘Gambler’ is my gambling theme” before getting back to giving Mix Master Mike props for his scratch routine.
12. Arthur Conley, “Sweet Soul Music”
A roll call of ’60s soul stars, “Sweet Soul Music” was the only hit single for journeyman singer Arthur Conley, which is just as well considering the man was as much of a fan as a performer. Conley reworked Sam Cooke’s “Yeah Man” with Otis Redding for “Sweet Soul Music,” and he made sure to put the “spotlight on” his mentor by quoting Redding’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” amid shout-outs to Lou Rawls, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett. Appropriately, Conley reserved “king of ’em all” status for James Brown, who was already the godfather of soul by the time “Sweet Soul Music” hit the charts in 1967. More than 40 years later, “Sweet Soul Music” still is a solid primer on the glory years of soul music for neophytes.
13. Count Bass D, “T-Boz Tried To Talk To Me”
A spirited Nashville MC with a small but fervent cult, Count Bass D also played most of the music on his debut, Pre-Life Crisis. That album’s lasting underground reputation is owed in good part to his shaggy-dog story about getting hit on by the TLC singer, in which he name-drops “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby-Baby-Baby.” The jazzy chorus and lazy swinging piano give the song’s light G-funk groove the air it needs for Bass D to tell his tale of “New Year’s Day of 1992,” when an Atlanta concert by his friends in Leaders Of The New School turned into a romantic opportunity: “I guess she saw me with the Leaders and assumed I had a record deal / but I was mesmerized with her sex appeal.”
14. Flight Of The Conchords, “Bowie”
Including a song by the Kiwi freak-folk parodists is a bit of a cheat, since they specialized in riffing on other musical genres and performers, but “Bowie” is just too good to pass up. Engaging in a loopy fantasia about the Thin White Duke’s most cosmic ’70s excess, Bret McKenzie crafts an overblown musical parody of his music while Jemaine Clement does an uncanny vocal impression. The lyrics about Afronauts and telescopic nipple antennae are alternately ridiculous and oddly appropriate, and when Clement slips in a lyrical reference to “ch-ch-changes,” it’s clear that he kids because he loves.
15. The Hold Steady, “We Can Get Together”
Craig Finn crams a dozen song-title references into one track on “We Can Get Together,” name-checking Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” Pavement’s “Heaven Is A Truck,” The Psychedelic Furs’ “Heaven,” and, keeping with a theme, the band Heavenly in just a couple of minutes. It makes sense, since the song is about the joy of sitting around listening to music. The Hold Steady’s fellow Minnesotans in Hüsker Dü get special attention, with “Do You Remember,” “Makes No Sense At All,” and “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” all getting swift, sneaky mentions.
16. Shooter Jennings, “4th Of July”
As the son of Waylon Jennings, Shooter Jennings is country royalty. But it isn’t his dad or even Willie Nelson, his dad’s heterosexual life partner, that Jennings pays homage to with “4th Of July.” While recounting an epic road trip in an RV, Jennings wails passionately that he and his girlfriend sang Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” until the “radio couldn’t take no more of that rock ’n’ roll / So we put on a little George Jones and just sang along.” Aptly enough, the album version of the song ends with crackle on the radio before Jones himself joins in on a sing-along to “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It’s a cathartic, liberating ending made all the more delightful by Jones’ ostensibly ad-libbed spoken-word part where he asks when he’s going to get paid for his sonic cameo.
17. Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills Is Still The King”
Written at the peak of the outlaw country movement in the ’70s, when Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were redefining the meaning of Texas music, “Bob Wills Is Still The King” makes no bones about who’s really in charge in the Lone Star State. Written the year Wills died, the song’s lyrics cite his huge hit “San Antonio Rose” in the first verse, and goes on to dismiss any possibility that the radical changes then transforming the country music scene would ever unseat the founder of Western swing. “It don’t matter who’s in Austin,” Jennings sings, “Bob Wills is still the king.”
18. Okkervil River, “Listening To Otis Redding At Home During Christmas”
One of the most melancholy songs in the catalog of a band known for them, this wistful holiday number by Austin’s Okkervil River certainly delivers on the promise of its title. The opening verse sets the bittersweet tone and recalls one of Redding’s most gorgeous songs: “Home is where beds are made and butter is added to toast / On a cold afternoon you can float room to room like a ghost / Take the crèche out and argue about who gets to set up the kings / and I know that it’s home because that’s where the stereo sings ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’.”
19. They Might Be Giants, “XTC Vs. Adam Ant”
This track from 1996’s Factory Showroom finds the two Johns moving past their usual whimsical absurdism into full-blown silliness, as they set up a theoretical duel to the death between two titans of the British new wave. “Beatle-based pop vs. New Romantic”—even Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin can’t decide. Although it’s unclear what the consequences are, it’s quite a titanic struggle: “Just when you think it’s finished, with XTC on top, ‘Ant Music,’ like a phoenix, flies back up the charts.”
20. Toby Keith, “Weed With Willie”
Among his many other accomplishments, Willie Nelson may be America’s most famous stoner. How many others can boast of having fired up a joint on the roof of the White House, as Nelson says he did in 1978? Naturally, Willie’s cannabis habit became a country song, when Toby Keith and Scott Emerik took a jaunt onto the Texas legend’s tour bus and came out coughing a new tune: “I always heard that his herb was top shelf / Lord I just could not wait to find out for myself / Well don’t knock it till you’ve tried it / And I’ve tried it my friend/ I’ll never smoke weed with Willie again.” The chorus name-checks Nelson’s classic “Whiskey River,” though a mention of “Honeysuckle Rose” only sort of counts—it’s also the name of Nelson’s tour bus.
21. John Lennon, “How Do You Sleep?”
One of the most withering putdowns of a former comrade ever committed in rock history, “How Do You Sleep?” was made even more devastating by John Lennon’s intimate knowledge of the song’s target, Paul McCartney. Lennon apparently was rankled by McCartney’s “Too Many People,” which he took as a shot at his relationship with Yoko Ono. If Lennon was right—and it’s not clear that he was—at least “Too Many People” was a subtle prod, whereas “How Do You Sleep?” is a dagger aimed straight at his former partner’s heart. “So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise,” Lennon sings in the opening line over a guitar riff played by fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison. And then he goes for the jugular: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead.” Later he makes an unflattering comparison between The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and Wings’ slight “Another Day,” implicitly concluding that Macca and his “pretty face” were washed up. Lennon later claimed that he wrote “How Do You Sleep?” about himself, but that was years after the knife had been sunk in McCartney’s back.
22. Jeffrey Lewis, “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror”
It’s one thing to pay tribute to a fellow musician by name-checking him, as sardonic New York post-folkie Jeffrey Lewis does with the man behind Palace, Bonnie, and other monikers. It’s another to depict Will Oldham enacting a scenario straight out of one of his own songs: “I lay there in the darkness on the train tracks cold and broken … And then I started thinking maybe it really hadn’t been Will Oldham / Even though he did hold my arms and fucked me / Just like Will sings in ‘A Sucker’s Evening.’” Only Lewis plays the encounter for laughs—in the song, “feeling in need of answers,” he approaches Oldham on the subway to ask advice on whether he should or shouldn’t pursue indie-level rock fame. The bearded part-time actor gets one line: “Artists are pussies.”
23. Don McLean, “American Pie”
It’s funny to remember that pop songs were once expected to be profound. This lengthy spiel, eight and a half minutes long and a No. 1 hit, could not have begged harder to be decoded. An allegorical song centered on the crash that killed ’50s rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, “American Pie” is festooned with references to older songs, from The Monotones’ doo-wop classic “Book Of Love” to The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High. (The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” inspired an entire verse.) That’s not even mentioning Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day,” which McLean’s inverts with his hook line, “This’ll be the day that I die.” Like, profound.
24. Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight”
The mid-’80s was a time when rock stars were expected to pay lip service to the glories of a ’60s that their own music’s high-gloss production wasn’t the least bit reminiscent of. This is one of the ultimate examples. The ex-cop born Eddie Mahoney had been making meat-and-potatoes radio-rock for nearly a decade when he released “Take Me Home Tonight,” a song that not only quotes The Ronettes’ 1963 classic “Be My Baby,” but brings in Ronnie Spector to re-sing the hook. It’s warm, but the rest of the track sounds totally freeze-dried, including (especially) the sax solo. Naturally, it’s the song latter-day cock-rockers Hinder perform in concert as proof that they have roots.
25. Pavement, “The Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence”
The early careers of Pavement and R.E.M. both hit similar beats—well-received EPs followed by name-making LPs, all surrounded by inscrutable public personas—so Californian Stephen Malkmus isn’t completely out of line for sympathizing with Michael Stipe and Co.’s Southern roots in the first verse of “The Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence.” Then again, that could just be Malkmus acting characteristically cheeky. Originally appearing among covers of Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the 1993 benefit compilation No Alternative, “The Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence” “covers” R.E.M. by winking toward Peter Buck’s six-string jangle and taking an abbreviated run through the track list of 1984’s Reckoning. Given the parallels between the bands—and Malkmus’ admitted admiration of R.E.M.—the track isn’t the piss-take it makes itself out to be. Though if the Pavement leader loves “Time After Time (Annelise),” he has an odd way of showing it.
26. Snow Patrol, “Hands Open”
This lyric from Snow Patrol’s “Hands Open” practically screams for indie-cred acknowledgement: “Put Sufjan Stevens on / and we’ll play your favorite song / ‘Chicago’ bursts to life.” But even if you feel the band is sub-Coldplay, give it credit for good taste: Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” is a pretty amazing song, and worthy of praise in any context.
27. Weezer, “Heart Songs”
Like everything Rivers Cuomo does lately, “Heart Songs,” from 2008’s “red album,” tries to be sincere and comes out smarmy, running down a list of childhood inspirations like “that Cat named Stevens” and Quiet Riot, “which got me started with the banging of my head.” These are Cuomo’s “heart songs,” he insists in a questionably earnest croon, and “they never feel wrong.” That may very well be true, though if Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” is really written in Cuomo’s soul, you’d think he wouldn’t misidentify it as a Debbie Gibson song. As it is, a litany of greeting-card rhymes (“It takes two to make a thing go right / If the Fresh Prince starts a fight”) backed by a lazy dorm-room guitar strum isn’t exactly an ideal tribute to the transformative power of Nirvana.
28. The Wombats, “Let’s Dance To Joy Division”
The Wombats celebrate their dour countrymen with a cheeky suggestion that the best way to combat the blues—specifically those drudged up Joy Division’s classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”—is to dance them away. Of course, The Wombats understand that the song’s rallying cry isn’t that easy to accomplish, so they suggest that you “celebrate the irony” while swiveling your hips to some of the saddest music ever.