1. John Cale, "Paris 1919" (available on Paris 1919)
Sure, the 1919 Paris Peace Conference forged the treaties that led to the end of World War I, but in Cale's baroque, oblique story-song, what really ended was Europe's reign as intercontinental tastemaker. While strings urgently saw away, Cale describes the confusion of voices in high culture's capital, ending with the line, "As the crowds begin complaining / How the Beaujolais is raining / Down on darkened meetings on the Champs Élysées." Cale's paean to the past is charming and smug, leaving ambiguous whether he personally thinks anything significant was lost when the old world order ceased to be.
2. The Who, "1921" (available on Tommy)
"I've got a feeling '21 is going to be a good year," Pete Townshend sings at the start of this song from the rock opera Tommy. Then he goes on to describe how Captain Walker—missing in action and presumed dead—returns home to find his wife in the arms of another lover. Contextually, the song is pivotal, as the parents' admonishment "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one" sets Tommy off on his deaf-dumb-blind "amazing journey." But as an ode to 1921, it's pretty useless. Was 1921 a good year? The U.S. officially ended World War I. That was positive. It was also pretty decent for Albert Einstein, who took home the Nobel Prize. It wasn't so good for the victims of Turkey's Assyrian genocide. Also, that's the year the Communist Republic Of China was founded and Adolf Hitler rose to power. Come to think of it, 1921 kind of sucked.
3. Harry Nilsson, "1941" (available on Aerial Pandemonium Ballet)
Nilsson first recorded his origin story for his 1967 debut album Pandemonium Shadow Show, then refurbished it for the endearingly fussy 1971 folly Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, which combined and remixed songs from his then-hard-to-find early albums. As it happens, Nilsson was born in '41, and as it happens—both in the song and in real life—his father abandoned him in 1944. This song skips through the decades on a foundation of allegory, as the son joins the circus, gets married, has a son of his own, and leaves his family. But the harrumphing brass band keeps "1941" rooted in its title year, when wartime anxiety pushed young men to make rash decisions that would echo throughout the rest of the 20th century.
4. Neutral Milk Hotel, "Holland, 1945" (available on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea)
The lynchpin of an album that's grown from amazing to legendary in the decade since its release, "Holland, 1945" encompasses Jeff Mangum's otherworldly genius in just over three minutes: The wobbly horns, fuzzy guitars, and his unmistakable nasal voice are all accounted for. But the words are what make "Holland" so incredible: Though clearly based on the diary of Anne Frank, the song captures her story without being literal—with circus wheels and reincarnation thrown in for good measure.
5. Rickie Lee Jones, "On Saturday Afternoons In 1963" (available on Rickie Lee Jones)
Positioned just after the hip, joyful "Chuck E's In Love" on Jones' classic debut, this brief, haunting piano ballad gives the upstart troubadour's boho persona a human context, recalling a girlhood of "foolish grins" and "special friends." The song's heroine fights to preserve her youth throughout the song, but each verse ends the same way: "Then again, years may go by." Songwriters have returned to 1963 repeatedly, likely because it's one of the century's pivotal years, what with JFK's death and The Beatles' arrival. Jones doesn't reference these events specifically, but it's clear that by the end of this song, something once-vital has escaped her too-tight grasp.
6. New Order, "1963" (available on Singles)
How does weak lyricist and shoddy singer Bernard Sumner always combine those faults into such great songs? This one, with its overwrought story of Johnny's return (perhaps from a war?) shouldn't work, but it was compelling enough to rate a re-release as an A-side nearly 10 years after it appeared as the flip to "True Faith." The significance of the year? Chances are great that it just rhymed with "me."
7. Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, "December 1963 (Oh What A Night)" (available on Who Loves You)
Quite possibly the last song you want stuck in your head, "December 1963" was a late-period No. 1 hit for Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons in 1976. Valli shared the lead vocal with drummer Gerry Polci, but his distinctive whine is prominent during the chorus. Like a horror-movie slasher, this dastardly song rose from the dead to become a hit again in 1994, thanks to a remix by a Dutch DJ. Hopefully no one else will trifle with this ridiculously upbeat ditty about meaningless, anonymous sex with strangers. (No wonder "December 1963" is a wedding-reception staple.)
8. Bryan Adams, "Summer Of '69" (available on Reckless)
Oh Bryan, you little imp. Message boards may rage forever with speculation that "Summer Of '69" isn't really about the summer of 1969 at all, but rather a not-so-sly reference to that slippery sexual act. Adams has generally encouraged people to think he's a naughty boy (telling audiences that the song is not about the year, wink wink), though the song's co-writer—who was actually well into puberty in '69, while Bryan was 9—swears that in his mind, it was never meant to be filthy. Regardless of how you'd like to think of it, it sure is fun to exclaim along, "Me and my baby in a '69!" while driving. In fact, a recent Canadian poll declared it the best song to drive to, beating out "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Born To Be Wild."
9. The Stooges, "1969" (available on The Stooges)
Iggy Pop declared his bad-acid vision to The Love Generation with the first song on The Stooges' first album. "It's another year with nothing to do," he grunts, effectively snuffing out the hopefulness of his activist peers. But the real message is in "1969"'s sound. The stunray guitar and tribal drums comprise the primal sonic elements of teen angst. This song is magnetically ugly. A year later, Pop and company lost even that magnetism, by recording an atonal, brain-melting sequel, "1970," in which Pop shrieks "I feel all right," just after describing the joys of narcotic stupor. The Me Decade had begun.
10. Josh Rouse, "1972" (available on 1972)
Another origin song of sorts, written by Rouse in honor of his birth year, as well as in tribute to the AM Gold sound he spends the whole album trying to revive. "We're goin' through the changes," Rouse sings on the chorus, but the sweet strings, rippling piano, and Carole King name-checks make it clear that Rouse would rather not change at all. For this song at least, he wants to remain stuck in a time when people did bad things, but to a soundtrack that was always clean and bright. "She was feelin' 1972," the song begins, and so is Rouse. He's back behind the eyes of the boy who never stopped watching what the grown-ups were doing, or listening to the lovely songs they did it to.
11. Robyn Hitchcock, "1974" (available on A Star For Bram)
In this nostalgia-steeped number, the former Soft Boys leader looks back from middle age on the twilight of the hippie era. The Soft Boys set the pattern for Hitchcock's songwriting career by striking a balance between brash proto-punk and surrealistic psychedelia, and "1974" checks in on the moment just before the epoch shifted. Hitchcock was 21 then, and two years from forming his breakthrough group. Syd Barrett's exit from Pink Floyd signals the end of the age for Hitchcock's younger self, but what will take its place remains a mystery, so he just waits "for the waves to come and crash on the shore." They say the past is another country, and here, Hitchcock remembers life just before the border crossing.
12. Ryan Adams, "1974" (available on Rock N Roll)
Ryan Adams has copped to the atrocious lyrics on his otherwise-underrated 2003 album Rock N Roll, and he isn't just being modest. "It's raining like a nosebleed, cigarettes and sweets, and I feel it coming on / Bloody as the day I was born," he sings on "1974." Nice, Ryan. That's almost as disgusting as crediting your girlfriend Parker Posey as the album's exe-"cute"-ive producer. Adams uses a lot of metaphors in "1974," going on about it "raining like bombs in my room" and the city being "an animal ready to eat" and a woman with "dirty knives hidden in her dress." Somehow, all this relates back to his year of birth, though the connection remains unclear. Perhaps Adams could have written about the city "burnin' up like The Towering Inferno" or his woman "gettin' kicked out like Richard Nixon."
13. RJD2, "1976" (available on Since We Last Spoke)
If our bicentennial year had a theme song, how might it sound? Maybe something like RJD2's wiggy turntablist ode to his birth year, which combines disco rhythms and cop-show soundtrack horns. It's exciting, kitschy, funky, and a little dark. It's 1976.
14. The Clash, "1977" (available on Super Black Market Clash)
By the end of the '70s, people were already romanticizing the rock 'n' roll era that had just passed, but The Clash shouted them down in this tight little punk single. "No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones!", Joe Strummer yelps over Mick Jones' buzzsaw guitar, urging listeners to pay heed to what's happening right now. Ironically, "1977" later became an anthem to those who wish rock 'n' roll could get back to where it was 30 years ago.
15. Smashing Pumpkins, "1979" (available on Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness)
It's hard to hear this shimmering, catchy hit single from Smashing Pumpkins' overstuffed double CD without thinking about its poignant video, which features shaggy-haired kids wreaking havoc in suburbia. But that feeling is present in the song too. Billy Corgan's rubbery guitar and whispery vocals don't sound like anything that would've been on the radio in 1979, but the imagery of empty streets and vacant cement lots captures the feeling of being out after dark in a world that the teens of the late '70s never made.
16. David Bowie, "1984" (available on Diamond Dogs)
David Bowie's 1974 album Diamond Dogs features plenty of highlights, but "1984" isn't exactly one of them. Coming on like a clunky fusion of "Theme From Shaft" and "Aquarius," the song was originally intended for a musical based on George Orwell's novel, before Orwell's widow denied Bowie the rights. Good thing, too: As it stands, "1984" is a hysterical vision of the future, rife with mind-blowing predictions like "They'll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air / And tell you that you're 80, but brother, you won't care." Little did Bowie know then that one of the most terrifying things to happen in 1984 would be the release of his album Tonight.
17. Paul McCartney & Wings, "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five" (available on Band On The Run)
The man of a thousand voices appears in the smarmy vocal guise of a carnival barker on "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five," a nervous little funhouse jam that alternates between a darkly descending, Great Depression-style piano riff, and an ethereal bridge packed with enough harmonies to give E.L.O. a run for its bell-bottoms. It's a strange track: After conjuring up an appropriately frightening image for the Orwell-plus-one era in the opening line, "No one ever left alive in Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five," sappy Paul actually fuses love lyrics onto the mean-sounding melody. None of the women in the future, he suggests, could ever replace his beloved Linda. Judging by his recent divorce from Heather Mills, he was right.
18. Bowling For Soup, "1985" (available on A Hangover You Don't Deserve)
Another "year" song that waxes wistful about the past at the expense of the present. "When did Mötley Crüe become classic rock?" whines Jaret Reddick over one of the lamest riffs nü-punk ever produced. The answer: At precisely the same moment that people started thinking Bowling For Soup sounded good.
19. Clem Snide, "1989" (available on Your Favorite Music)
Spinning pop culture into wistful little diamonds is one of Clem Snide's slam-dunk tricks, and this beautifully somber gem jokingly paraphrases Prince's "1999" without ever threatening to actually par-tay. Sure, there appears to be a gathering, but mournful strings accompany the thought "You were hoping that a party would break the silence of this room / With laughs." Alas, it never happens. But the world does get another lovely song out of Eef Barzelay's melancholy.
20. Prince, "1999" (available on 1999)
It seems quaint now, but the year 1999 was once so amazingly far off that it was an easy shorthand reference for a time when we'd all be flying around with jetpacks, or even more drastically, waiting for the end of the world. The children of the '80s lived in terror of nuclear war, and that feeling that Armageddon was just around the corner became pervasive in pop culture. Prince took on the topic several times, sometimes with an earnest, stop-the-madness angle on songs like "Ronnie, Talk To Russia." But his 1982 hit "1999" just shrugs its shoulders. Faced with the purple skies of judgment day, he figures there's no point in doing anything but dancing: "Life is just a party, and parties weren't meant 2 last."
21. Pulp, "Disco 2000" (available on Different Class)
Only Jarvis Cocker could turn fond memories of a grammar-school classmate into a sexual come-on. In this gleefully sleazy song from Pulp's breakthrough album, Cocker gets all misty singing to "Deborah" about how everyone said they could've been "brother and sister," and how they promised themselves they'd marry each other one day—if they were both single in the year 2000. Well, guess what date's fast approaching, Deborah? After pausing to remember that she was "the first girl at school to get breasts," Cocker asks Deborah if they could meet on Sunday. "You could even bring your baby," he moans, desperate to find the words that will get her into bed at last.
22. Prefab Sprout, "Carnival 2000" (available on Jordan: The Comeback)
Call it pre-millennial tension, but there sure were a lot of songs about the year 2000 as it drew near. Prefab Sprout's "Carnival 2000"—recorded in 1990—is one of the sweetest. It's a hopeful piece of light pop-tropicalia, with breezy lyrics about raising a glass to absent friends, and the cool music we'll be listening to on the night we celebrate the ultimate New Year. "Lives come and go / But life, no denial / is always in style," Paddy McAloon sings, dispensing with nostalgia in favor of optimism.
23. Rush, "2112" (available on 2112)
It's hard to gauge what's weirder: A hard-rock-turned-prog band writing a 20-minute science-fiction song about a theocratic dystopia, or said band dedicating said song to Ayn Rand, who no doubt would have screamed in horror had she heard it. Stranger still, "2112," which consumes the entire first half of Rush's 1976 opus, actually sounds good—scratch that, great—in 2007. Or maybe Coheed And Cambria just makes it seem so by comparison.
24. Zager & Evans, "In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)" (available on Billboard Top Pop Hits: 1969)
Prince saw the human race ending with a bang, but Nebraska duo Zager & Evans think we're more likely to die out with a drawn-out whimper that takes millennia to unfold, as we slowly turn into machine-assisted blobs that suck the Earth dry and are eventually wiped out by God. It's the most lackadaisical apocalypse ever put to song. The future also wasn't too kind to Zager & Evans, who never had another hit. And though "In The Year 2525" was a number-one single for six weeks in 1969, its gravely overblown, doom-laden imagery (not to mention that ludicrous subtitle) made it almost instantly dated, doomed to live on mainly in derisive jokes by the likes of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.