1-2. Arthur Conley, “Sweet Soul Music” and The Soul Clan, “Soul Meeting”
It’s become an honored tradition to name-drop other artists in song, especially if the name-dropper might benefit from a piggyback ride on the names of those more famous. To his credit, Arthur Conley was already a promising R&B upstart—and a protégé of Otis Redding—when he made “Sweet Soul Music” a hit in 1967. Co-written with Redding, the song borrows heavily from Sam Cooke’s “Yeah Man.” But where Cooke’s tune celebrates the generic joys of dancing to pop music, Conley names names: “Spotlight on Lou Rawls, y’all,” he commands early in the song before giving shout-outs to other soul stars like Sam And Dave, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and, naturally, Otis Redding. Conley had plans to launch himself into that upper echelon with a supergroup called The Soul Clan, one in which he, Redding, and Pickett would join forces. Redding’s death in ’67 ended that dream, but Conley quickly gathered a great (if short-lived) Soul Clan roster that included Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Don Covay, and Joe Tex. In the spirit of “Sweet Soul Music,” The Soul Clan’s debut single “Soul Meeting” gave Conley and his cohorts the chance to shamelessly, elatedly name-drop a bunch of their favorite singers: each other.
3. John Cougar Mellencamp, “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To ’60s Rock)”
Sort of a less-grumpy sequel to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock And Roll,” “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.” paid tribute to the music Mellencamp grew up listening to and the freewheeling radio formats that played black and white artists back-to-back. The video underscores the pro-integration message by showing black and white musicians playing together on the set of a Shindig-like TV show, but so does the roll call of stars that ends the song. “There was Frankie Lymon, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder” but also “Jackie Wilson, Shrangri-Las, Young Rascals.” Before the song’s through, there’s still time for a spotlight on Martha Reeves and a moment to remember James Brown. The song struck a chord for ’80s audiences, but was kept from reaching the No. 1 spot by another tribute to past musical masters, Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus.”
4. The Clash, “1977”
Joe Strummer could barely snarl out the syllables of the chorus of “1977,” the B-side of The Clash’s debut single, “White Riot.” Wipe away the gob, though, and the song’s refrain becomes one of the first hints that The Clash had something more going on upstairs than spiked hair. “No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones,” Strummer spits, but it’s an ambiguous slam at best. Is he knocking the rock aristocracy, as was assumed (and expected) of the punks of ’77? Or was The Clash—a group that gleefully stole riffs from The Who and The Kinks—playing both sides of the equation and simultaneously lamenting the fact that rock mythology circa the mid-’70s had a rotten core? History would go on to prove each interpretation true, as Strummer and company became increasingly, perversely obsessed with rock traditionalism and sonic iconoclasm. Regardless of the motive behind mentioning Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones in song, Elvis’ death in 1977—five months after The Clash released “1977”—helped serendipitously cement the band’s abrasive reputation.
5. Generation X, “Ready Steady Go”
Compared to Joe Strummer, Billy Idol has a slightly weaker grasp of complexity. His ’70s pop-punk band Generation X released its debut single in 1978—and in it, Idol looks back with unabashed fondness on the ’60s, and particularly the British music TV program Ready Steady Go!, which helped turn Idol’s, ahem, generation onto everyone from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones. A master of the literal, Idol pays loving tribute to both in the lyrics of “Ready Steady Go,” and then throws in Bob Dylan for good measure, even going so far as to call him “Bobby.” The song comes across as a sneering response to The Clash’s ostensible condemnation of The Beatles and The Stones in “1977”; despite Idol’s brattiness, though, it’s hard to deny the song’s potent rush of pop nostalgia.
6. Ramones, “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?”
For a supposedly nihilistic movement, punk had more than its share of nostalgia. The genre’s arguable originators, the Ramones, are a prime example—and none of their songs is steeped in a stronger strain of rose-tinted retroactivity than “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?” Released in 1980, the saxophone-slathered, ’50s-style throwback marked the first of many abrupt revamps in the Ramones’ style, this one thanks to an infamously tumultuous relationship with legendary girl-group producer Phil Spector. Among the tune’s many reactionary rallying cries are mentions of some of Joey Ramone’s biggest inspirations, including Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon, and T. Rex. It’s a wonder the band didn’t wind up rattling off its gleefully anachronistic list of musical heroes in an episode of Happy Days, 15 years before Weezer arrived at the idea.
7. The Scorpions, “Speedy’s Coming”
Long before the group became massively successful and influential in its own right, The Scorpions were singing about stardom—from the outside looking in. Released in 1974, “Speedy’s Coming” is one of the band’s first forays into harder, leaner proto-metal after a prolonged hippie-ish phase. Frontman Klaus Meine uses this more direct approach to sing about, naturally enough, picking up chicks. “You like Alice Cooper / You like Ringo Starr / You like David Bowie,” he sings without a hint of snark; after all, The Scorps themselves had recent taken to covering The Sweet. “I’ll bring you to the show, little girl / Come and see me today.” Surely Cooper, Starr, and Bowie would have signed off on the noble intention.
8. Molly Hatchet, “Gator Country”
Molly Hatchet showed up a day late and a Dixie short to the Southern-rock party. By the time the Florida band had released its self-titled debut in 1978, Lynyrd Skynyrd had been decimated and hard rock had begun supplanting Southern rock as the blue-collar soundtrack of choice. Shrewdly, Molly Hatchet sought to bridge that gap by drawing equally from Kiss and Skynyrd then slapping some epic Frank Frazetta art on its album covers, a move that screamed “Viking” more than “good ol’ boy.” But on Molly Hatchet, the group felt the need to ingratiate itself into the Southern-rock pantheon with “Gator Country.” After an Allman Brothers-esque intro, singer Danny Joe Brown provides a roster of Southern-music icons that Molly Hatchet would, apparently, love to be inducted into—including Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Elvin Bishop, Marshall Tucker, The Outlaws, and, of course, The Allmans. The move seems desperate, but Molly Hatchet had nothing to prove; any band that writes “Flirtin’ With Disaster” doesn’t need to sweat its bona fides.
9. The Hold Steady, “The Swish”
Craig Finn’s irreverent reverence for classic-rock history was established early on with “The Swish” from the Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. A drug-addled tale of a night spent in Beverly Hills, “The Swish” is littered with girls who look like ’80s B-list pop star Patty Smyth and burnouts who claim to be The Band’s Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson (“but people call me Robo”) and Journey’s Steve Perry and Neal Schon. While the story told in “The Swish” is a bit of a pill-popping blur, Finn’s name-dropping provides some familiar signposts for the bands that The Hold Steady salute and skewer in equal doses.
10. David Allan Coe, “Willie, Waylon, And Me”
Never one to play by the rules, David Allan Coe is perhaps the most outlaw-friendly of the original outlaw-country artists. He’s also known far and wide as a batshit crazy motherfucker—which may partly excuse (but not really explain) his 1976 song, “Willie, Waylon, And Me.” A revisionist account of the development of outlaw country, country rock, and rock ’n’ roll itself, the song casts Coe himself as a major player in music history. Dropping names like bolts of lightning from Mount Olympus, he insinuates himself into a convoluted, mythologizing narrative that weaves together The Byrds, The Eagles, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan. Somewhere in the midst of that swirling, delusional vortex squats Coe—not to mention, as the song’s title suggests, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, both of whom Coe apparently has been magnanimous enough to immortalize.
11. 2Pac, “Old School”
Caught in a whirlwind of skyrocketing success and an impending jail sentence, 2Pac decided to root his 1995 masterpiece Me Against The World in a relatively quiet, laid-back track that took a deep breath and reaffirmed his formative years and influences. That song, “Old School,” remains one of the most loving and nostalgic accounts of the late-’80s/early-’90s Golden Age of hip-hop. Mixing memories of his adolescence in Harlem with references to a host of then-emerging legends (LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, Eric B. & Rakim, Queen Latifah, and KRS-One, to name a few), he sketches a vivid portrait of a time and place that birthed a significant chunk of contemporary culture—but he does so in intimate, at times bittersweet strokes. When 2Pac released “Old School,” he was only 23, and the era he raps about was barely in the rearview mirror. But he looks back at that time with the wise, tender homesickness of someone who’s already reached the end of this life.
12. Minutemen, “History Lesson Part II”
For their epochal 1984 album Double Nickels On The Dime, the Minutemen offered up an uncharacteristically gentle and folkie piece of self-mythology called “History Lesson Part II” that laid out the story of the band and, perhaps unintentionally, the very fabric of American underground rock. “Our band could be your life,” D. Boon declares at the start, a line that would be immortalized decades later by Michael Azerrad’s book about ’80s indie music. Boon is telling his audience that it can do what he’s done, forming a band and carrying on old traditions in his own, idiosyncratic way. He’s offering up the Minutemen as model to be followed, just as the Minutemen followed heroes like Richard Hell, Joe Strummer, John Doe, and Blue Öyster Cult’s E. Bloom.
13. Ted Leo And The Pharmacists, “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?”
Even back in the pre-Pharmacists outfit Chisel, Ted Leo made no bones about his love of a bygone era of music—one in which acts like The Jam, Joe Jackson, and Elvis Costello had the market cornered on sharp, clever rock made by skinny, clever dudes. (You know, like Leo.) But he takes that revivalist sentiment to a more poignant—and less literal—place with “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” The Pharmacists’ first true, timeless anthem, the song pines for the day when Britain’s Two-Tone movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s—and in particular, Jerry Dammers, Terry Hall, and Lynval Golding of The Specials and Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers—mixed punk, passion, and the righteous rhythms of Jamaican music. And the best thing: Leo does it all without going the obvious route and actually writing a ska tune.
14. Reunion, “Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)”
In the sole hit by Reunion, singer Joey Levine breathlessly works through verses that rattle off recording artists, hit songs, and other pop-culture references—from Mott The Hoople to The Archies to Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots—before spilling out into an earworm-y chorus. (Among the references: the song “Yummy Yummy Yummy” by the bubblegum hitmakers Ohio Express, which featured one Joey Levine as its lead singer.) A smash in 1974, it’s slight, annoying, and incredibly catchy, and almost certainly the uncredited inspiration for R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” even if it’s nowhere near as good.
15. The Dead Milkmen, “Instant Club Hit”
Better known as “You’ll Dance To Anything,” “Instant Club Hit” (from 1987's Bucky Fellini) is The Dead Milkmen’s sarcastic swipe at ’80s dance culture, but singer Rodney Anonymous doesn’t just go after wannabes who “look like Siouxsie Sioux.” In his crosshairs is “any bunch of stupid Europeans who come over here with their big hairdos,” including The Communards, “Depeche Commode,” Book Of Love, PiL, Naked Truth, and The Smiths. The Milkmen abandon their jangly, sloppy novelty punk for synthesized drums and bass to set the appropriate mood for Anonymous to harangue fans of those bands as “Artfags! Artfags! Artfags! Artfags!” in his stilted way. It's completely regressive and juvenile, but also completely Dead Milkmen.
16. Ben Folds, “Rockin’ The Suburbs”
“Let me tell y’all what it’s like / Being male, middle-class, and white,” self-mocks Ben Folds in his 2001 song “Rockin’ The Suburbs.” Musically, the song goes on to lampoon the packaged angst of everyone from Eminem to Korn. Folds, though, saves his bouncy, snotty reverence for three artists: Michael Jackson, Quiet Riot, and Bon Jovi, all of whom are named as OG suburb-rockers. The message is a little diffuse—Jackson, after all, wasn’t white, or maybe that fact is just part of Folds’ joke—but it’s clear the young Folds must have drawn one thing from all three: a knack for writing anthems. Even if he does feel the moral obligation to repeatedly point out that Jackson, Bon Jovi, and, yes, even Quiet Riot were more talented.
17. Bowling For Soup, “1985”
What Ben Folds managed to handle with some wit and subtlety, Bowling For Soup bulldozed over. The group’s 2004 hit “1985” barfs up a laundry list of ’80s music icons—Whitesnake, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, U2, Blondie, Wham!, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne—while offering up Limp Bizkit and Nirvana as a pair of foul antitheses to the halcyon decade of fun, hair, and glamour. Framing the song in a narrative about a suburban mother of two who longs for the days when “she was gonna shake her ass on the hood of Whitesnake’s car,” the video betrays “1985” for what it really is: a long, tedious setup for a cheap MILF joke.
18. Gym Class Heroes, “Taxi Driver”
If “apotheosis” can be defined as “as bad as it could probably ever get,” the word would definitely apply to “Taxi Driver” by Gym Class Heroes’ take on the name-drop song. While most songs that name-drop other artists at least try to incorporate those names in a meaningful way, Gym Class Heroes forget to write a song in the first place. Barely held together by weak beats and weaker rhymes, the song recites a litany of more than 20 emo, indie-rock, and post-hardcore bands like a bored teacher taking attendance. (Among them: Death Cab For Cutie, Dashboard Confessional, Cursive, Sunny Day Real Estate, My Chemical Romance, Jimmy Eat World, The Postal Service, Thursday, Jets To Brazil, and Hot Water Music.) A half-assed effort is made to turn those names into a string of sentences, but it just turns into word salad. There may be a satirical motive behind “Taxi Driver,” but ultimately, the only band that winds up looking bad is Gym Class Heroes.
19. Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start The Fire”
The list song to end all list songs, Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” name-checks approximately 1.3 million musical artists, celebrities, political leaders, historical events, and just plain ol’ things (like “television” or “punk rock”) in the space of about five minutes. Somehow, amid this orgy of proper nouns, Joel finds time to mention rock ’n’ roll legends Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, and … Chubby Checker? What’s the logic here? Who knows? Like all the other references cluttering “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” Joel doesn’t provide any context for why he’s focused on these people and events as signifiers for modern American history. Apparently, it’s just a bunch of stuff people of a certain age will likely remember and recognize. In retrospect, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” stands as a signifier for the emptiness of baby-boomer nostalgia at the end of the ’80s.
20. Weezer, “Heart Songs”
The biggest bone of contention between Weezer loyalists and the band’s detractors regarding late-period albums like 2008’s “Red Album” is the sincerity of singer-songwriter Rivers Cuomo. Fans insist that Cuomo is a fun-loving (though admittedly strange) middle-aged man who honestly believes in every word he’s singing, no matter how choked up with tortured hip-hop speak and lame pop-culture references those words might be. You really have to buy into Cuomo being a genuinely naïve innocent not to see “Heart Songs” as smarmy bullshit cooked up by a creatively bankrupt artist who’s given up sentiment for snark. Paying tribute to scores of artists that Cuomo supposedly grew up listening to—including everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Devo to a “cat named Stevens”—“Heart Songs” might’ve had a shot at being emotionally affecting if it weren’t so smirky and desperate. (“Quiet Riot got me started with the bangin’ of my head / Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Slayer taught me how to shred,” goes a typical line.) The inherent phoniness of “Heart Songs” is what does it in. After all, if Cuomo is really a Debbie Gibson fan, why does he reference a Tiffany song when addressing her?