50 Songs Every Man Should Hear

From Johnny Cash to the Beastie Boys: the musicians who understand exactly how you feel

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Proto-punk at its punkiest
Punk rock’s tough-riffing ode to heroin was initially rejected by notorious caners The Ramones for being too obviously about drugs. Written by two of the NY scene’s godfathers, Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell, it was released first as the debut single from Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and remains one of the all-time great punk songs, as well as one of the all-time great drug songs. (See also: Number 43.)
The clincher: That riff? The Clash stole from the best.

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Ramshackle tribute to “the powerful stuff”
So drunk was Fifties music star George Jones when he recorded this ode to moonshine written by JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson, the exasperated producer supposedly put him through 80 takes. Heaven knows what he’d have made of The Fall’s version, which shaves 30 seconds off the running time and swaps honky-tonk piano and acoustic guitar for garage rock and Mark E Smith’s actual slurring. Magnificent-ah!
The clincher: How all songs about drinking should sound.


Lennon from his mistakes
JL’s classic is rumoured to be about, variously, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney or his first wife Cynthia. Regardless, this Imagine album track is a master class in heartfelt, grown-up apologising. Lennon bares his soul and exposes his flaws, to some absolutely beautiful piano.
The clincher: “I was feeling insecure / You might not love me anymore” – a reminder that even a Beatle can feel vulnerable occasionally.


 
Glad to be sad
A departure for the mutton-chopped rockers, featuring brass and flute. Written for the film Slade in Flame (1975), the sentiment of a group being passed over for the newer kids on the block works just as well as a meditation on the passing of time. Unexpectedly moving.
The clincher: The six-minute album version is even better.
 

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Definitively “Maybe”
McCartney’s at his best as a balladeer and this is one of his most affecting, recorded as The Beatles were crumbling. He played all the instruments (plus wife Linda is on backing vocals).
The clincher: “Baby, I’m a man, maybe you’re the only woman /  Who could ever help me.”


Woman trouble
“Lord knows I did everything I could / Tried to satisfy her worried mind… You know she was nothing but trouble, trouble / She keep me worried all the time…” What man hasn’t, at some point, felt this way toward the object of his affection? Leave it to grizzled blues legend John Lee Hooker to tell it like it is, then, taking his frustration to the ultimate conclusion. Not that we’re condoning murder. We just really like the song.
The clincher: Obviously there’s a Nick Cave cover.

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Loved-up cockneys
Camden Town five-piece Flowered Up epitomised early Nineties’ excess on this epic, 13-minute wig-out. A cracking tune with a message of telling the boss where to stick his nine-to-five, it can still make you gurn along in recognition today.
The clincher: The acid-house “experience” video is a work of art in its own right.
 

 
 
 
Talkin’ ’bout my inspiration
A demand for compositional inspiration badgered up from the turmoil-ridden mind of Cave to his absent muse: “John Willmot penned his poetry / Riddled with the pox / Nabakov wrote on index cards / At a lectern, in his socks/ S t John of the Cross did his best stuff / Imprisoned in a box / And Johnny Thunders was half-alive / When he wrote ‘Chinese Rocks’.” Enough said.
The clincher: It’s writer’s block as rock – clever.
 

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The hippies strike back
Rock rightly abjures violence but even acid-head peaceniks like The Flaming Lips know that sometimes you’ve got to stand up and be counted. This battle is not physical but a question: will you do the right thing? We’ve all wrestled with this one.
The clincher: “To fight is to defend / If it’s not now then tell me when?”


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Life-affirming, door-slamming brilliance
Fuzz bassline. Gunshot snare drum. Ear-piercing lyrics. The Beasties’ perfect encapsulation of anger and frustration (“I’m gonna set it straight / This Watergate!”) was almost left off Ill Communication, only finding its place at the 11th hour with Ad-Rock’s vocals recorded on a cheap eight-track recorder (they sound like it). Spike Jonze’s Seventies’ cop show parody still has a fair shout at being the greatest music video ever.
The clincher: The music dropping out at 1:37, the pause – then the distorted guitar riff kicking in again.


Gettin’ soppy with it
A single from Smith’s classic 1997 album Big Willie Style, it’s an unapologetic love song to his son Trey originally written as a kid’s story. A heartfelt slice of father-to-son bonding.
The clincher: “And you can cry / Ain’t no shame in it.” Preach, Will.


Hello, doom service?
The British duo meditate on some unspecified dread (“This could be the longest day / And the night has yet to come”) with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan on vocals. Orchestras swell, horns rise, the confessionals issue forth – and perversely the world feels a better place.
The clincher: Johnny Cash would have loved it.


Male bonding, set to pop music
”A new royal family / A wild nobility / We are the family” – indeed! Ant’s mix of bravado, bluster, self-aggrandisement and camp has no peer in UK pop.
The clincher: We want to be in his gang.


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London’s wild west sound
Gunfire, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly samples, a bizarre tale of a miracle cure-all… it makes no sense but sounds impossibly thrilling. Put it on and watch your world turn into a prairie full of outlaws and whiskey bars.
The clincher: It starts with Clint Eastwood saying, “Get three coffins ready.”



 
“Naked” brilliance
Tim Simenon’s homage to William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. The cut-up lyrics take in Led Zep, hookahs, Guinness, Apocalypse Now and “mugwump jism” in a delicious mix of hip-hop, scratching and – why not? – explosions.
The clincher: It’s The Beats go breakbeat, basically.
 


 
Bittersweet symphony
The Divine Comedy’s lushly orchestrated chamber pop classic is for anyone who’s ever lost anyone. Meaning, in essence that it’s a song for everyone. First the violins grab you by the heartstrings, then the guitar joins in – and by the time Neil Hannon has begun crooning, “Absent friends, here’s to them…”, you’ll be in bits. And that’s OK.
The clincher: “Happy days, we thought that they would never end. But they always end.” Sniff.
 
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Labour of love
Ever felt like the office is getting you down? Sam Cooke – he of the unsurpassably silky voice – delivers the definitive take on workplace struggles, based on his chance encounter with a real chain gang. It’s a beautifully soulful meditation on the endlessness of work, and a wistful hymn to freedom.
The clincher: Cooke’s high vocalising – “my work is so hard” – soars elegantly above regular human expression and into the realms of poetry.
 

 
Never apologise, never explain
It’s almost compulsory that this song should feature on this list, even though OI’ Mafia Eyes actually hated it himself. Paul Anka rewrote a fatalistic French hit as the ultimate statement of audacity and contempt for your critics. No wonder it’s a favourite at karaoke, funerals and the courts of folk like Slobodan Milošević.
The clincher: It’s one long build to the final “I did it myyy waaaay”.
 
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The philosopher’s rock
A massive tune – multi-octave-belter David Coverdale heads inexorably down the only road he’s ever known, documenting his internal strife via the timeless medium of hard rock (or blues rock, if you prefer their other recording). It’s man versus fate. Who wins? Everyone.
The clincher: The chorus – an anthemic, empowering, stadium-uniting classic.

 


 
Your license to ill is back from the Post Office
Tom Cruise dances to this in a fat suit at the end of Tropic Thunder. It’s a comically bouncy invitation to fight all comers which Ludacris – one of the funniest rappers around – flips into a smart caricature of macho MC’ing. Most of all, it’ll just make you feel like your world’s on a trampoline.
The clincher: That elastic keyboard line will give your feet an Ali shuffle.
 


 
Lemmy crushes it
In a triumphant flurry of monster guitar riffs, the probably-invincible Lemmy delivers a single-entendre tribute to hitting it hard. The singer’s sandpaper vocals meet Motörhead’s dark, enormous rock sound, the combination sending one immediately head-first down a rabbit-hole of late-Seventies’ hedonism.
The clincher: Partridge be damned, those riffs are possibly what air-guitar-in-the-car was invented for.
 

 
Even cowboys get the blues
Sometimes, even the most grounded chap wants to ball up and blot it all out. This stately, simple acoustic tune written after Beck’s girl left is perhaps the most broken-hearted thing in the alt-rock songbook, and perfect for a good old wallow.
The clincher: The random “Nigel Godrich noises” that put the tune in sharp relief.
 
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Revving it up
One of the last living soul legends, the Reverend Al is in fine form on this joyous 1975 recording. “L-O-V-E” is as blissful a paean to being loved-up as has ever been committed to vinyl, CD or Spotify. Somehow, Green captures the tingling, euphoric, golden wobbly feeling and synthesises it into a three-minute-long classic.
The clincher: Green’s high notes infect you with happiness.
 

 
The best wake in rock’n’roll
Who doesn’t love a good funeral with a well-stocked bar? Pipes a-parping, this song about burying a drunken, fighty bastard – complete with tall tales of the deceased – makes death sound almost tempting. Best of all, it shifts into wet-eyed poignancy in its final verse. All life is here, depicted by Shane MacGowan at the top of his game.
The clincher: The shift from dirge to celebratory riot at 1:07.
 

 
Because emotions are for bottling up, OK?
The truly moving, adult song of being dumped is a hard one to pull off. Being averse to irony, country and soul do it best. In this Stax cut, planned for Otis Redding – who died before he could record it – it’s all in the anguished arrangement. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.
The clincher: That slow, sleek intro with its mournful strings.
 
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Will make you feel like Donald Trump
in a good way. We could fill this man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world with songs from the Godfather of Soul, and this Eighties’ dance pounder, while Apollo Creed’s signature tune in Rocky IV, is hardly his funky magnum opus. But for sheer, irrepressible machismo and manifest-destiny value, plus it is pure cocaine for the feet, this is hard to beat.
The clinchers: “New Orleans! Detroit City! Pittsburgh PA! New York City!”
 

 
Modern life is rubbish
In a constant state of rage at the chummy banality of the current age, with its telly chefs and nonsense celebs? You’ll find your anger beautifully condensed into this splenetic glam-punk rant from these great, doomed poets of contemporary Britain. Like true heroes, Earl Brutus burned brightly and briefly.
The clincher: “Tudorbethan mansion… hair design by Nicky Clarke.”
 

 
Domestic Monkey business
Alex Turner, the Alan Bennett of Generation Y, exquisitely documents a row with his lover in this now seldom-performed classic from the Monkeys’ mind-blowing first album. From “I’m in trouble again, aren’t I?” to “Pulling that silent disappointment face, the one that I can’t bear”, it’s all beautifully, awfully recognisable.
The clincher: “I can’t be arsed to carry on with this debate” – exasperated but suffused with wry affection; like every argument with the missus.
 

 
“Jewish Elvis” tormented
Despite the Yewtree-ish title, this is about male forbearance and Diamond’s knife-edge persona inhabits it perfectly. He’s fixated but her family hates him. Will she stay a girl or be her own woman? Neil can only grit his teeth.
The clincher: The four bass notes that answer “Girl…” are like descending fate.
 


 
Marshall Mathers’ “Eye of the Tiger”
Written by Eminem between takes while on-set filming 8 Mile, “Lose Yourself” is a furious, adrenaline-spiking story of a man clawing his way out of the gutter and making something of himself, overcoming impossible obstacles with nothing more than guts and willpower. Autobiographical and inspirational – you can make it, if you put your heart into it – it’s Rocky set in urban Detroit.
The clincher: The iconic guitar lick starts your heart racing immediately – by the time the chorus kicks in you’re ready to conquer the world.
 
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Brotherly love - and hate
From the days when Noel Gallagher had so many great songs that he’d squander them on B-sides, this raging maelstrom is the Oasis tune. Ostensibly another free-form love song, it really sums up Noel and Liam’s fractious relationship, the two bound together by this inexplicable music that even they don’t understand. Amazing.
The clincher: “Because we neeeeeeeeed each other…”

 
 
 
Ultra-violent Wu manifesto
In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan demolished the hip-hop universe and rebuilt it in their own image – dark, harsh and unapologetically aggressive. Producer RZA has stated of the titular chorus: “I was thinking about having everybody in the whole club or in the neighbourhood go crazy. But at the same time, I was calling out all challengers.” For those moments when you need to let the world know who’s boss.
The Clincher: RZA’s kung-fu film samples only add to the badassery of this ultimate hype song.
 


 
Time to sweep the scum off the streets!
It’s the theme to Gerry Anderson’s early Seventies’ jet-set detective show The Protectors, which ought to be intrepid enough for anyone. But Christie’s three-minute epic is a hard-boiled crime drama in itself, complete with lowlife, highlife, horny horns and tragic cadences that speak of sticky ends. Is there a more exciting record?
The clincher: “Every city’s got ’em / Can we ever stop ’em? / Some of us… are gonna try!”
 

The original outlaw guitarist
Deathless Fifties’ instrumental that pioneered distortion and feedback to radio-banning effect. The prowling riff is based on a 12-bar blues, improvised at the request of a fan, that became the guitarist’s signature track. North Carolina-born Wray claimed he was taught guitar aged eight, by a circus performer called Hambone.
The clincher: Iggy Pop says it was hearing “Rumble” played in his student union that set him on a path to music.

 


Pure punk perfection
The most stupidly exhilarating guitar intro in rock aside, this early track from the Westway wonders is a first-class tantrum against meddling record companies, managers and The Man in general. Joe Strummer’s so worked up that the words don’t fit and everybody is playing faster than everybody else but who cares? Stick it on again.
The clincher: “You’re my gee-tar hero!”
 

Inspiration across the nation
Returning to our theme of not letting the bastards grind you down, this landmark track from the Jamaican rude-boy-goes-wild movie will inspire defiance in even the most downtrodden individual. Let Babylon bring its tax demands, parking tickets and 360º personal performance reviews. With this tune, you shall conquer the downpressor man.
The clincher: “I’d rather be a free man in my grave / Than living as a puppet or a slave.”

 


Be your own boss
Concert staple that was often preceded by a lengthy Boss monologue, typically about the fights he’d had with his father. This ballad with an undeniable beat marked a turning point in Springsteen’s writing. Here, the working-class narrator can’t escape his troubles by riding through mansions of glory in suicide machines à la “Born to Run”, but is married with a kid on the way, and the jobs working construction have all but dried up. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?/Or is it something worse?”
The clincher: That haunting harmonica solo.
 


Broader than Broadway
Some songs just put you at the centre of the universe – and a supremely cocksure reggae bassline doesn’t hurt, either. So mightily confident that you don’t even notice that the song is all about Barry getting the runaround from a woman he has inadvertently impregnated. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
The clincher: “Over the ocean and over the sea/All of the girls dem are pose for me.”
 


Revenge is a dish best served smokin’
From the Django Unchained soundtrack, this chilling song of vengeance proposes righteous justice against villains we all agree deserve it – the slavers in Tarantino’s movie. Who knew that soul sophisticate Legend had it in him?
The clincher: “I don’t take pleasure in a man’s pain/But my wrath will come down like the cold rain.”

 
 

The poetry of the pissed
The romance of being hopelessly shitfaced remade by Bones Howe’s 3am production and Waits’s canine growl into a fierce last stand in a stinking side street. Waits is the Byron of booze we wish we could be.
The clincher: “I’m an innocent victim of a blinded alley/And I’m tired of all these soldiers here.”
 

The sound of male madness
Forget Jamie Cullum: this is what a big band can do. The theme to Otto Preminger’s movie – starring Frank Sinatra as junkie drummer Frankie Machine – cannot be matched for insane masculine swagger. It’s exciting, reeking of mean streets, steaming subway grates and smack-sick desperation.

The clincher: True brass bonkers kicks in at 1.06.
 


The battle hymn of the independent Republic of You
Being a man is about only one thing: never giving in, no matter what. Cheap-shot political campaigns have serially abused Petty’s first solo single for their own ends, but it’s bigger than the people who try to borrow its power. See Johnny Cash’s version, too, for pure grandeur.
The clincher: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell… but I won’t back down.”
 


Country’n’Wythenshawe
Country is the most rugged genre, putting red blood in the veins even of wan John Peel types like pre-rave New Order. This tale of a returning Vietnam vet who finds he’s already dead is preposterous but brilliantly so, with clattering guitars, a surfeit of manly tragedy and a nonsensical title.
The clincher: “Then I looked into her hand/And I saw the telegram…”
 


Pulls no punches
Probably the only international hit that quotes a grandmother’s instructions to get back in the ring and flatten your opponents, LL’s post-slump comeback opens with “Don’t call it a comeback” – and gets bolshier from there. Ludicrously aggressive but fuelled by tooth-rattling beats, it’s steroids for your ears.
The clincher: “Damage! UHH! Damage! UHH! Damage! UHH!”

 

Release your inner raggamuffin
If you haven’t acted like a total knob to this at a wedding then you haven’t lived. Mixing corny Fifties rock’n’roll with ragga beats, the biggest hit from Handsworth’s Steven Kapur is so ludicrously pumped-up and overconfident that it goes beyond cheese into a special kind of genius. Bubblin’!
The clincher: The BOINNGG! at 0:20 says it all.

 

Staring death in the eye, country style
The American Civil War, love, death, separation and the sea all become one in a great Jimmy Webb song in which a young soldier faces both mortality and ultimate reality. Campbell’s upbeat, rhinestoned version only accentuates the tragedy and the song finishes before the battle begins – because you know how it ends.
The clincher: “Oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying.”
 

 
Pure bravado in three minutes 52 seconds
Every golden-age rapper’s subject was himself and his prowess. Brooklyn’s Antonio Hardy took braggadocio to previously unheard heights on this JB’s-sample-driven classic. Here he crushes all competition, heals the blind, teaches the ignorant and beds more women than Teddy Pendergrass. Sneak a listen before your next area sales meeting.
The clincher: “’Cos I can never let ’em get on top of me / I play ’em out like a game of Monopoly."

 

Staring death in the eye
Who does not weep at the thought of drowned fighter pilots, lost maritime heroes and the love that conquers death? Brighton’s BSP take indie rock far behind its callow concerns to examine true idealism. With a magnificent riff and a spirit of immortal defiance, this song is more manly than a barrel of Iron Maidens.
The clincher: “Always, always, always the sea/Brilliantine mortality.”

 

Long tall scallies
The savage, young, leathered-up Beatles of Hamburg are lost to history, barely recorded and papered over by the moptop years. But their ghost is here in a raucous song of hard work and shagging with its hungry screams and Ringo battering everything in sight. The Rolling Stones? My arse.
The clincher: “But when I get home to you / I find the things that you do / Will make me feel… all right.”


 
 
The song of man’s predicament
Nobody nails how it feels for a man to give up the freedom he had in order to keep what he’s found like Cash does here. You can hear the sheer effort of holding himself in check as he sings, “I find it very, very easy to be true.” He’s telling the truth, and he’s lying, too.
The clincher: “Because you’re mine… I walk the line.”
 
Taken from Esquire's May music special Edition, out in shops now.
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