Sarah Witkowski's All-Time Most Epic Songs

Back in February 2008, senior contributing editor John Marks decided to hold a competition.

What this competition is about is finding five songs from what I will loosely call the Rock Era (written anywhere, but only since 1954) that, in craftsmanship, musicality, intelligence, and emotional impact, can give the lieder and chanson traditions a run for their money.

Fun, right? Several of our readers came up with excellent lists, but one winning list that I found especially impressive came from Sarah Witkowski.

My name is Sarah Witkowski. When I read about your competition I was very excited! (And still am.) I'm 16 years old and I like to call myself an "apprentice" audiophile. My dad is an audiophile and he encouraged me to enter this because apparently all I ever talk about it music. I would LOVE it if you published my list because I'm not Stereophile's average reader, and it might be fun to compare my list to someone my dad's age. I'm the only kid I know with a turntable in their room. (It's pretty awesome; it has this really cool Grace tonearm on it.)

Last week, Sarah sent me an e-mail:

I compiled a list of 150 songs recorded from 1961 to 2008 that I consider to be some of the most epic songs in modern popular music. By "epic," I mean that the songs provoke emotion in the listener and that the composition has great dynamics; some songs might not have amazing dynamic composition but they still felt epic to me. The songs are sorted by date and split up into 9 groups: 1961-1967, 1968-1969, 1970-1973, 1974-1977, 1978-1989, 1990-1994, 1995-2001, 2001-2004, 2005-2008.

Wow! I was so impressed by Sarah's complete list that I asked her if I could share some of it here on the blog. Sarah agreed. The following songs make up a much abbreviated list—just the top ten songs from each time period. Some of Sarah's lists have up to 19 entries!

Sarah Witkowski's All-Time Most Epic Songs

1. Ben E. King: "Stand by Me"
2. The Beatles: "I Want To Hold Your Hand"
3. The Animals: "House of the Rising Sun"
4. The Righteous Brothers: "You've Lost That Loving Feeling"
5. The Beatles: "You've got to Hide Your Love Away"
6. The Righteous Brothers: "Unchained Melody"
7. Simon & Garfunkel: "The Sounds of Silence"
8. Simon & Garfunkel: "I Am a Rock"
9. Otis Redding: "Try A Little Tenderness"
10. The Beatles: "Strawberry Fields Forever"

1. The Byrds: "Wasn't Born to Follow"
2. The Doors: "The Unknown Soldier"
3. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: "Burning of the Midnight Lamp"
4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: "1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)"
5. Pink Floyd: "Jugband Blues"
6. Simon & Garfunkel: "America"
7. The Beatles: "Something"
8. Crosby, Stills, & Nash: "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"
9. Led Zeppelin: "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You"
10. The Rolling Stones: "You Can't Always Get What You Want"

1. Cat Stevens: "Trouble"
2. Cat Stevens: "Tea for the Tillerman"
3. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young: "Country Girl"
4. The Grateful Dead: "Attics of My Life"
5. Led Zeppelin: "Tangerine"
6. Pink Floyd: "Summer '68"
7. Simon & Garfunkel: "The Only Living Boy in New York"
8. The Beach Boys: "Feel Flows"
9. Pink Floyd: "One of These Days"
10. Ten Years After: "I'd Love to Change the World"

1. Genesis: "The Lamia"
2. Supertramp: "Hide in Your Shell"
3. Supertramp: "Asylum"
4. Fleetwood Mac: "Blue Letter"
5. Fleetwood Mac: "I'm So Afraid"
6. Led Zeppelin: "The Rover"
7. Led Zeppelin: "Ten Years Gone"
8. Lynyrd Skynyrd: "Simple Man"
9. Lynyrd Skynyrd: "Comin' Home"
10. Led Zeppelin: "Tea for One"

1. The Police: "Roxanne"
2. Juice Newton: "Angel of the Morning"
3. Rush: "Witch Hunt"
4. Prince: "Little Red Corvette"
5. The Outfield: "Say It Isn't So"
6. Simple Minds: "Don't You (Forget About Me)"
7. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: "Don't Come Around Here No More"
8. Berlin: "Take My Breath Away"
9. INXS: "Never Tear Us Apart"
10. R.E.M.: "The One I Love"

1. My Bloody Valentine: "Soon"
2. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Rhinoceros"
3. Stevie Ray Vaughn: "Little Wing"
4. Peter Gabriel: "Digging in the Dirt"
5. R.E.M.: "Nightswimming"
6. Red Hot Chili Peppers: "Under the Bridge"
7. Nirvana: "All Apologies"
8. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Disarm"
9. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Quiet"
10. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Soma"

1. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Galapogos"
2. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Thirty-Three"
3. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Thru the Eyes of Ruby"
4. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Stumbleine"
5. The Smashing Pumpkins: "By Starlight"
6. John Frusciante: "I May Again Know John"
7. Sarah McLachlan: "Do What You Have to Do"
8. The Smashing Pumpkins: "Ava Adore"
9. Blink 182: "Adam's Song"
10. Alkaline Trio: "Radio"

1. The Shins: "New Slang"
2. The Flaming Lips: "Fight Test"
3. The Flaming Lips: "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt.1"
4. Michael Andrews & Gary Jules: "Mad World"
5. My Chemical Romance: "Skylines and Turnstiles"
6. Nine Inch Nails: "And All That Could Have Been"
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers: "By The Way"
8. Cursive: "Staying Alive"
9. The Mars Volta: "Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)"
10. The Mars Volta: "Televators"

1. Billy Corgan: "Tilt"
2. Bright Eyes: "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)"
3. Bright Eyes: "Land Locked Blues"
4. Bright Eyes: "Road to Joy"
5. Coldplay: "Fix You"
6. Death Cab For Cutie: "Marching Bands of Manhattan"
7. Death Cab For Cutie: "Soul Meets Body"
8. The Mars Volta: "The Widow"
9. My Chemical Romance: "Desert Song"
10. Silversun Pickups: "Lazy Eye"

A mighty impressive list, I'd say. And it includes some of my own all-time favorite songs: "Try A Little Tenderness," "Something," "The Only Living Boy in New York," "Never Tear Us Apart," and "Under the Bridge." Sarah also lists a few songs by bands I'd never even heard of, such as "I'd Love to Change the World" by Ten Years After and "Angel of the Morning" by Juice Newton. These are completely new to me, but you can be sure I'll check them out because Sarah says they're cool. Also, remember that this is an incomplete list. I was happy to see that Sarah had listed Sonic Youth's version of "Superstar" at number 15 among her most epic songs of 1990–1994.

Sarah obviously put a lot of effort into creating this list. The complete project not only includes artist names and song titles, but the albums on which the songs appear, the years during which the albums were released, and composer names. As John Marks said when he named the winners of his competition, this sort of passion and enthusiasm is just what our hobby needs.

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Gary's picture

I wish I had had this depth of musical appreciation at 16. She has outstanding taste in Smashing Pumpkins, that's for sure!

Melillo's picture

Woah... Call me when you<re 21.. Kidding ;)Nice list indeed, I'll Google a few of these song for sure! Nice to see some Mars Volta there. And Road to joy is an incredibly powerful song!

Adam's picture

Great list. Good to see that other people appreciate some of the other hidden gems out there from contemporary times. Probably would have added some Dismemberment Plan in the late 90's and 2000's, though. "Staying Alive" is a wonderful choice, and something I haven't listened to for too long.

jeff's picture

The list is exactly what I'd expect from a precocious 16 year old. Simplistic in scope, but well chosen considering the young woman's experience. Most of the stuff pre-70's is pretty good, but her choices past there become more dubious with every category. I notice that David Bowie doesn't make it on the list once. Sarah needs to expand her horizons a bit. She has plenty of time to do that since she is quite young. Go, girl!Of course, I'd expect a moron like Mejias to fall over himself about this. Like most of the jackasses at Stereophile, they love crap like vinyl and lousy bands that have no instrumental chops, are tone deaf and have 1 octave vocal ranges.I can't wait for his next glowing review of whatever that hack Jack White's next project is.Here's a few names to google: porcupine tree, martone, planet x, stream of passion, ra (the sun god, not the cheer)... and, the greatest guitar player in the history of the universe, allan holdsworth (eddie van halen agree

Fred von Lohmann's picture

Worth remembering that this kind of eclecticism and breadth is only possible thanks to the culture of file-sharing that has made large quantities of music available at essentially zero cost (unless Sarah is lucky enough to have unlimited funds for buying CDs, downloads, vinyl). While some may bemoan the consequences for major record labels, it is creating a generation with unparalleled exposure to musical styles. I predict this is an investment that will pay dividends to tomorrow's music industry many times over.

Harold's picture

Pretty good list even includes a tune by Rush. What perplexes me though, is how someone who works in a field that involves reproduction of music has never heard of Ten Years After or Juice Newton. The former I might believe if you're under 30, maybe.

rvance's picture

Hey jeff, your doctor called in your Lithium refill. He says to take it with lots of Toll House cookie dough. Gotta go, bro'. Got White Stripes on the TT and it's rockin'!

Scott's picture

I'll just say "good on, Sarah!" While we all will have our differences of opinion about what moves us (music is very subjective), I'm still glad to see anyone take an interest in any form of music, and dive in to not just a few artists or one time period, but a very wide scope of a genre like Rock. Sarah is obviously well beyond the scope of "casual listener" and put a lot of thought and effort into her list.

Stacia Snow's picture

That's my cousin! She is amazing! Fabulous taste in music and the best gal you'll ever know!

James Marks's picture

She's missing a couple of real epics: Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" come to mind. Other than that, I can't disagree with her list. It's terrific.

Joe Evans's picture

I guess she really, really likes Smashing Pumpkins. All that's to say her taste seems to have settled on a specific genre as she has gotten older.

Kenr's picture

"Sarah also lists a few songs by bands I'd never even heard of, such as "I'd Love to Change the World" by Ten Years After"You are kidding aren't you?

Stephen Mejias's picture

What perplexes me though, is how someone who works in a field that involves reproduction of music has never heard of Ten Years After or Juice Newton. The former I might believe if you're under 30, maybe.You are kidding aren't you?I'm 31 years old, and, though I might recognize the songs if I heard them, I honestly don't know these bands. I'm guessing by your surprise that these bands are well-known. I'm sure these are not the only well-known bands that I've never heard of. Something that makes me both sad and extremely happy is the fact that it's impossible to experience all the good stuff in this world.

Mike Rodman's picture

The band Ten Years After is also at the center of a music trivia question generally certain to win you a beer. To wit:Q: What is the significance of the band's name?(Hint: The name was coined in 1966.)A: It was ten years after the arrival of Elvis on the pop scene.(On my honor, there was no Googling involved. So I'll have a pale ale if you're buying.)

Bubba In SF's picture

Well, for a 16 year old she didn't do bad. She obviously was exposed to a pretty good variety but, even Mr Mejias hadn't heard of some artistswho were actually fairly popular in their day. Nowit is more difficult to hear a broad spectrum of any genre, rock, jazz or classical due to the homogenization of FM. In the 50's, 60's & 70'sthe FM stations had college students and true fanatics of their music as DJ's. Now we have the internet and Kiss FM (in all cities) formula music. There isn't the hearing of new music before it hit the stores because stations would get promo copies to build up demand then it would go on sale. Mr Mejias had never heard of Ten Years After whose guitarist Alvin Lee was up there with Eric Clapton , Jeff Beck & Jimmy Page.She did mention Jimmy Hendrix so she has good glimpses. At 16 she has a lot to look forward to and her sense of what is good stuff shows it will be fun. Sarah- try listening to Bryan Ferry, The Pixies & The Clash. They were real g

Poi Dog 48's picture

This list is simply amazing from such a young mind. What drew my attention was the music from my era, songs that I've always considered amazing,case in point "Wasn't Born to Follow" album: The Notorious Byrd Brothers, a spacey album celebrating freedom & life while the band fell apart over trival ego issues. The song is also found on the "Easy Rider" soundtrack.Historically speaking 1968 was a musical fest, and in retrospect this C.King/G.Goffin received a royal Byrds treatment. Never heard it check out the Sony Legacy reissue.

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