52: AC/DC – “You Shook Me All Night Long” (1980)
In 1980, AC/DC’s growing fan-base, devastated by the recent death of singer Bon Scott, still had to get used to newcomer Brian Johnson. The replacement didn’t quite have Scott’s almost demonic snarl, an enormous part of the group’s signature menace. Regrouping from the loss of a front man who was barely in his grave, AC/DC recorded Back in Black in a location that may not seem sufficiently rock ‘n’ roll: the Bahamas. But Johnson and his new mates moved out of that formidable shadow and in this island paradise ushered in the next great era of AC/DC—and one of its best songs.
“You Shook Me All Night Long” was the leading single from what would become the band’s biggest-selling album ever and one of the best-selling records of all time. It’s chiming guitar intro seems to strike time on a heavy metal clock urging listeners to reset their watches because the new kid is here and he’s excited—perhaps too excited : “She told me to come/ But I was already there.” Under one of the most primal chord progressions in rock, drummer Phil Rudd laid down the kind of beat that still sounds essential, and out of the most basic elements, the band made something that even Robert Christgau called a “great work of art.”
Co-written by brothers Angus and Malcolm Young with Johnson, the group’s first Top 40 hit may have had supernatural help. Johnson has said, about writing the song, “I don’t believe in spirits and that, but something happened to me that night in that room.” How else could you explain a line as perfect as, “knockin’ me out with those American thighs,” a concept so great it inspired the title of Veruca Salt’s debut album and even an Onion piece, a song so rocking it can survive being covered by Celine Dion and Billy Joel.
Granted, Joel passed the mic to Brian Johnson himself for a 2014 live performance. More than 30 years later, the song can still get a rise out of an audience at Madison Square Garden. – Pat Padua
51. U2 – “With or Without You” (1987)
At the end of the day, the best pop music requires a personal touch. It’s all well and good to thump one’s chest in righteous anger (something that U2 did exceptionally well throughout the ‘80s), but the songs that have the most lasting impact tend to focus on the smaller scale things. “With or Without You” is that sort of song, the kind of song U2 rarely wrote in the ‘80s and almost never write nowadays. For a band whose righteous fervor often veers into the dreaded realm of self-righteous fervor, U2 offer something surprising on “With or Without You”: a rare moment of vulnerability.
U2 exercise a certain level of restraint throughout most of the song. Granted, these guys never were the flashiest band in the world from a technical standpoint, but their appreciation of simplicity is taken to a new extreme here. The Edge is nearly absent, his guitar only appearing to punctuate the darkness of the simple rhythm with a few chiming notes. The stage is essentially ceded to Bono by the rest of the band, and the man who named himself “good voice” in Latin does not disappoint here. His vocal performance is largely bereft of his usual vocal histrionics. Instead, he is measured and cool, portraying the wounded nature of his lyrics without resorting to obvious tics. His voice only rises when it has to, culminating in a wordless climax that remains one of his finest moments as a singer. Bombastic and subdued in all of the best ways, “With or Without You” is a pop masterpiece that has managed to age better than most of U2’s recent work. Its balance of instrumental simplicity, lyrical depth and vocal acrobatics make it one of the finest songs in U2’s catalog, as well as one of the handful of the band’s songs one can listen to nowadays without conjuring images of Bono with an American flag sewn in his jacket. – Kevin Korber