Could not agree more with your choices of “In My Room” and, especially, “God Only Knows.” Absolute pop perfection. Still gives me the shivers to this day.

Expand full comment

Also, I'd like to make a case for "Love of the Common Man" by Todd Rundgren.

Expand full comment
Jul 14, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

I submit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbfIZyjI2mI

Expand full comment
Jul 14, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

Too many, but one that came up recently and reminded me how much I love it is Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” https://youtu.be/Fo6aKnRnBxM

Expand full comment

I have always loved soul & R&B. A perfect pop song must start with a gripping introduction. "My Girl" and " Psychedelic Shack " fit the bill perfectly.

Expand full comment

Lots of good tunes…nice to be chilling with music on a hot July afternoon. Thinking about those days, long past. Thanks!

Expand full comment

You already covered "God Only Knows," which fits my definition of a song that is well nigh impossible to screw up. Mandy Moore's cover of this from Saved is what revealed that she has surprisingly sophisticated musical taste.

And I'll also stand up for the longer cut of "Jump into the Fire." The drum solo is a large part of what makes that song cool, although "Goodfellas" is largely what makes me think that, the way the "everything's going to hell" montage circles back to it.

Expand full comment
Jul 15, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

I found this interesting: 1) because I am not sure I would have framed the question like this (your favorite song vs. perfect song question); 2) I share some overlap on bands/singers but might have picked different songs (cleaning windows, one of these things first, in a slight mountain goats twist the Darnielle Extra Glenns side project song “All Rooms Cable A/C Free Coffee”; 3) I have never heard your top choice… I’ll throw “she said” in because every list should have at least one song from revolver on it, CCR fortunate son for ongoing relevance, prince’s kiss to stir in a little funkiness, and lake street dive neighbors song to keep us firmly rooted in Boston.

Expand full comment
Jul 15, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

Come on.

There's no such thing as perfect.

Maybe Bach’s Mass in B minor is perfect, but not too many things….

And you cannot set me up with these loaded terms, because: you don't define the terms.

Most people seem to think a song is great if they like it (well, duh?), but really: I get sick and tired of hearing that there aren't objective qualities to music. But there are.

When people like a song, they usually don’t consider exactly why.

Is it because they like the lyrics?

Because they like the construction of the music: the melody, the harmony, the form?

Is it because they like how it was sung and performed? How it was arrange? how it was produced?

These are all separate things, even though the goal is to merge them all into a collective whole.

So, great lyrics don’t really make a song great, they make the lyrics great.

Great singing doesn’t make the song great, it means the singing was great.

And what in god’s name, exactly is a “pop” song?

I mean: when I was a young rock musician in the 60s and early 70’s, “pop” was a term that had zero to do with rock music. It mean Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Pat Boone.

So: what IS pop music?

I don’t see how any Bob Dylan song can be perfect.

Remove the lyrics and his awful singing, and you have pretty much: nothing. The most mundane, ordinary melodies and harmonies. Bob Dylan is where he is because of what the lyrics say (or what people think they do). They are NOT great compositions. And please: don’t argue with me about this. I’ve heard all of the disagreements to that over and over and over and over and will pay no attention.

The merits of Bob Dylan are the lyrics, and the energy he brings to them.

Not every aspect of it. No way are they “perfect”.

Whatever that means.

What always kills me about these sort of “pop” music arguments is they SO limit what music can be part of the conversation.

Never ANY freakin’ mention of the great american songbook.

The songs of Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Bernstein, Sondheim are a hell of a lot closer to that unobtainable thing “perfect” than Bob Dylan or the Beach boys could ever hope to be and they aren’t even in the contest.

The magnificent songs of West Side Story aren't pop? And I can assure, you the inner construction of that music (the craft involved DOES count) is a few dozen levels above Bob Dylan.

Somehow, songs get divided up into “art’ music, folk music and pop music?

So again: what does pop music include exactly, which seems to be something with moving goal posts.

This list of pop music has such a limited genre’s represented.

Is not Laura Nyro’s Stoney End (a big hit for Barabar Streisand) great pop music?

Is not Martha And the Vandellas singing dancing in the streets?

Are notthe gospel songs of Kurt Carr, or Sitting ON the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding, or Up On the Roof by Carol King pop music? What about the great songs of Hank Williams? (isn’t country pop?). Sweet Baby James?

And don’t even get me started on the songs of Billy Straryhorn, Duke Ellington, Monk and Charles Mingus (whoops! Those aren’t “pop” music, this are “art” music, I guess).

This stuff drives me crazy.

Expand full comment
Jul 15, 2022·edited Jul 15, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

That Jamaicans song is SO GOOD! It’s one of those songs where as soon as I saw it mentioned, I had to immediately listen to it. One other similar era / genre song I love equally — and that I also think is a perfect pop song — is Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam. https://youtu.be/qXnT3LFTc-s

Also very happy to see Waterloo Sunset on the list, a song very dear to my heart.

I love Love is Like a Bottle of Gin too and a lot of the songs on that album, but my favorite is probably The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure. Who but Stephen Merritt would ever think to rhyme composer/composure/kosher/Dozier, the last right in the middle of “this is for Holland Dozier / Holland…”. That’s just amazing.

Expand full comment

I thought about sending out for a month's worth of provisions before trying to tackle this subject.....I spent decades writing and producing music, including a lot of pop songs, some of which charted here and there.....but let me say this: we are listening to so many wonderful songs which were written half a century ago or more. I doubt in fifty years folks will listen to much written and recorded in the last 20 or even 30 years. The age of the Beatles and Beach Boys ( yes to God Only Knows - there was a CD remixed with pretty much only vocals from those albums - find it if you can) was not just OUR age - it is the age for the ages - these songs remained so very steadfast in our hearts and ears. A few to consider: In the Living years by Mike and the Mechanics; You Look at Me Look at You, Dave Mason ( killer guitar solo);Road to Moscow by Al Stewart; Seventeen by Janis Ian; and then there are songs by more obscure artists - Faith of Man (Bill Staines); From a Distance ( Nanci Griffiths); a bunch of tunes by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I'm just getting revved up for takeoff, but it's best I abort this flight for fear I'll crash and burn under the weight of the cargo!

Expand full comment

I like that I don’t know some of your choices, so I can check out something new to me.

I would say Be My Baby cannot be better. The drum intro is killer. Remember when Brian Wilson would listen to it 100 times in one sitting?

Expand full comment
Jul 15, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

As much as I love Tim Buckley's presentations of this song of his, Mortal Coil makes it a great Pop Song https://youtu.be/HFWKJ2FUiAQ

Expand full comment

For what it's worth: "For What It's Worth" by Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield. Perfect pairing of musical arrangement and timeless lyrics. https://youtu.be/80_39eAx3z8

Expand full comment
Jul 16, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

I was a quite dedicated rock critic from '72 to '03 and the concept of a perfect song never occurred to me, so this invitation is hard to resist.

You mention two Beach Boys songs, but the most perfect pop song I know of is a Beach Boys deep track from Sunflower, "This Whole World." The catch is that the chord progression is so unusual that even a trained ear like mine couldn't make sense of it until a third listen. I once wrote 600 words on the lyrics.


Randy Newman, whose combo of musical and lyrical chops is hard to top, has to be in here; like a lot of others, I have to go with "Marie." (Scroll down to the 8th comment!)


The Flirtations "Nothing But a Heartache" was a #3 hit in Boston, but didn't make it into most markets. I wouldn't just call this "the best Motown song not on Motown" -- it's easily my favorite song in the Motown style. The structure is insane: one section that serves as both verse and chorus, and a 9-bar bridge that climaxes with the title. You've also got a genuine 1968 or '69 music video here.


To my chagrin, the other 9 songs that I came up with initially can't truthfully be labeled as "pop," since the artists had no reasonable expectations of achieving popularity. There are two masterpieces of art-rock (not to be confused with prog, according to me), Jack Bruce's "Morning Story" and Procol Harum's epic "Whaling Stories (with great guitar work by a pre-Hendix-ized Robin Trower). There are the pinnacles of punk, Iggy and the Stooges' "Search and Destroy," and of post-punk, Pere Ubu's "Final Solution" (released two years before punk began, and a month before the first Ramones album, respectively).

There's Kristin Hersh's "Spain" and Liz Phair's "Stratford-on-Guy," and going further in the unconventional confessional direction ... _Big Star's 3rd_ and Lisa Germano's _Geek the Girl_ are universally regarded as almost insufferably dark and downbeat albums, but I adore them both. They are works of highly conscious artistry and limitless compassion and empathy for self and others, and if you can make your way through them they are inspirational. Big Star's LP was never finished, while Germano's is, I believe, the best constructed concept album in pop / rock history. I count 6 and 8 perfect songs, respectively, and selected "Take Care" and "Cancer of Everything" because they leaven the darkness. Both have intentionally incoherent sonic landscapes.

The 13th Floor Elevators may be best known in this crowd for their minor hit "You're Gonna Miss Me" landing in the opening scene of _High Fidelity._, but they're likely the all-time champs in influence to fame ratio. I believe that lyricist Tommy Hall had a *delusional* belief that he had Roky Erickson were still writing popular songs when they penned "Dust," which might have the most challenging rhyme scheme in pop music history. It features one of Roky's best tunes and vocals, and has a non-zero chance of convincing you that the whole hippy love ethos did save the world in some alternate reality.


(The lyrics included have numerous mistakes; Google them if you're curious.)

Expand full comment
Jul 16, 2022Liked by Ty Burr

I think of perfect songs kind of like perfect meals, they are both contingent - depending on the time, the place, the mood, who you're with, memories the song or food evokes. Since there's no absolute perfection, I would nominate at least these:

Good Vibrations - Beach Boys (live! https://youtu.be/QSLMWasU0rM)

Harvest Moon - Neil Young (https://youtu.be/n2MtEsrcTTs and here's a particularly lovely cover: https://youtu.be/ml22cp4ojHg)

The Thrill is Gone - B.B. King (B.B. https://youtu.be/oica5jG7FpU and Garcia/Grisman https://youtu.be/C56KoGpf2P0)

Can't Take My Eyes off of You - not The Four Seasons but Lauren Hill (https://youtu.be/wVzvXW9bo5U)

All Shook Up - not Elvis but Ry Cooder (https://youtu.be/2tuTl3Md3yU)

Dance Me to the End of Love - Leonard Cohen (https://youtu.be/2zjLBWnZGTU)

You're No Good - Linda Ronstadt (https://youtu.be/_bj_32QeAaU)

My Baby Just Cares for Me - Nina Simone (https://youtu.be/3ZS7iKdRo5Q)

I Say a Little Prayer for You - not Dionne Warwick but Aretha (https://youtu.be/-8y0onSG3kg)

Voodoo Child - not Jimi Hendrix but Angelique Kidjo (https://youtu.be/FIZ38L-ALK8P)

And for a very different kind of sometimes perfect (non-pop) song: https://youtu.be/C1ZL5AxmK_A

Expand full comment