Beauty and bitterness are not mutually exclusive. Lyrics like “You just kind of wasted my precious time” are not the sort that would make a romantic swoon, but Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” balances such barbs with mournful regret (“Still I wish there was something you would do or say to try and make me change my mind and stay”) that reveals his true love for the woman he’s leaving. The absolutely heart-throttling melody and Dylan’s sparkling guitar go a long way toward soothing the bitter and emphasizing the sweet.
2. “Be My Baby” written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich and performed by (1963)
Beauty and power don’t cancel each other out either. Is there a mightier intro than Hal Blaine’s thumping beat that kick starts “Be My Baby”? From there, Phil Spector invokes a tornado of clattering percussion and high-flying strings as The Ronettes battle to shout their candy-heart slogans above the din. It’s the ultimate musical illustration of love’s commanding thrall, as powerful as it is beautiful.
3. “God Only Knows” written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher and performed by The Beach Boys (1966)
Brian Wilson worshipped Phil Spector but managed to create productions that were both walls and whispers of sound. “God Only Knows” is one of his most extraordinary: deep and detailed yet airy too. Carl Wilson’s lead vocal is so delicate that listeners often miss the cruel tease that opens the song (“I may not always love you…”). Of course, he will continue to love you “long as there are stars above you.” That means forever, folks. “God Only Knows” is desperately romantic, bordering on the neurotically needy. Without peer the most beautiful love song ever written.
4. “Walk Away Renee” written by Michael Brown, Bob Calilli, and Tony Sansone and performed by The Left Banke (1966)
Welcome to the birth of mope rock. Left Banke keyboardist and resident genius Michael Brown harbored a punishing torch for bassist Tom Finn’s girlfriend Renée Fladen-Kamm. That must have made things difficult for the band, but it also gave them their most timeless hit. Brown translated the pain of unrequited love into music exquisitely. Strings weep. Vocalist Steve Martin sounds as if he’s going to break down in tears at any moment. Harpsichord and flute add dignity and elegance to a scene of otherwise unfiltered despair. Terribly sad and terribly beautiful.
5. “Strawberry Fields Forever” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and performed by The Beatles (1967)
John Lennon wrote plenty of love songs, but his more personal pieces were his most emotionally affecting. On paper, “Strawberry Fields Forever” doesn’t seem to have the makings of a beautiful song. It’s an acid addled, self-contradicting, bleary-eyed ramble cobbled together from two totally different recordings that ends in cacophony and with a non-sequitur grunt of “cranberry sauce.” But listen to the melody, the vulnerability of the lyric, the way the regal orchestrations and Ringo’s massive drum track make Lennon’s voice sound so fragile. The Beatles never produced anything more beautiful, and in this writer’s opinion, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is pop’s greatest song.
6. “Waterloo Sunset” written by Ray Davies and performed by The Kinks (1967)
The Kinks have many, many songs that could have justifiably found a place on this list: “I Go to Sleep”, “Too Much on My Mind”, “No Return”, “Days”, “This Time Tomorrow”, “God’s Children”, “Moments”, “Celluloid Heroes”, “Better Things”, etc., etc. I’ll defer to Robert Christgau here because his pick for “the most beautiful song in the English language” is pretty tough to contend. “Waterloo Sunset” finds Ray Davies peering out his window, watching all of London’s fashionable swinging swingers go about their busy business, meet up to carouse, fall in love. But he’s content to just watch, finding modest solace in his view of the dirty old Thames and the lovely sun setting over it. Although Ray doesn’t let on that there is any sadness in his isolation, melancholy simply drips from his quavering voice and lilting melody.
7. “The Door Into Summer” written by Chip Douglas and Bill Martin and performed by The Monkees (1967)
The Monkees could have had their first—and only—U.S. A-side with a self-recorded song had they been able to secure the rights to Bill Martin’s “All of Your Toys”. Unfortunately, Martin was not affiliated with Screen Gems publishing in early 1967, which meant The Monkees were not contractually allowed to release any of his compositions. Although the “All of Your Toys” ship had sailed, Martin quickly signed on with Screen Gems and slipped a track onto the group’s fourth album. Not only was “The Door Into Summer” a highlight of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, Ltd., it was perhaps the highlight of The Monkees’ entire recorded output. More uptempo than anything else on this list, the track wrings maximum beauty out of Martin’s poetic anti-war message, Peter Tork’s tinkling piano, Mike Nesmith’s wistful lead vocal, and Micky Dolenz’s heart-rending counterpoint harmonies. Haunting.
8. “Sweet Thing” written by and performed by Van Morrison (1968)
In terms of sheer beauty, only Pet Sounds may compete with Astral Weeks. Mysteriously atmospheric, intensely personal, emotionally bare, Van Morrison’s first real album is divine from beginning to end. It reaches an emotional peak of sorts with “Sweet Thing”. The image of gnomish Van as a romantic conqueror (“I shall drive my chariot down your street and cry, ‘Hey, it’s me, I’m dynamite and I don’t know why’”) is kind of comical, yet he sells it completely with the voice of a giant. Van’s romanticism is totally unselfconscious, which makes it all the easier to get swept up in it.
9. “A Salty Dog” written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid and performed by Procol Harum (1969)
Progressive Rock has a reputation for soullessness, which has always put Procol Harum’s status as a prog group in question. Gary Brooker was one of Rock’s great white soul singers, and his band played with incredible power and passion. The typhoon they raise on the title track of their third and greatest album is downright annihilating. If the climactic roar of voice, strings, and drums that caps the final verse of “A Salty Dog” does not take your breath away, you may not have any breath to give. The song also simmers to moments of wafer-thin fragility, Brooker’s piano engaging in a slow dance with skeletal pizzicato stings. Keith Reid’s heartbreaking lyric about an adrift ship and its despondent captain complement the music beautifully.
10. “The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” written and performed by George Harrison (1970)
Matched with the delicate voice of George Harrison, Phil Spector curbed the hullabaloo of his early ‘60s classics when making All Things Must Pass. The results may be his most beautiful production, and the most ethereal example of this is “The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)”. The subject matter is unconventional— a love song to George’s Victorian mansion, Friar Park (Crisp was one of the home’s previous owners)— but the ex-Beatle plays the romance as sincerely as if he was serenading Patti. This track floats.
11. “Fight Say the Mighty” written by William Campbell and Thomas McAleese and performed by Marmalade (1970)
Marmalade’s stiff-upper lip classic “Fight Say the Mighty” is a mini-epic. At under-five minutes, the track moves through the near-silence of its verses to the euphoric shout of its choruses to the wordless but blaring bridge and back again. So fraught yet determined it will put a lump in your throat, particularly at the climactic chorus of “Please, please, please, heal my brother.”
12. “One of These Things First” written and performed by Nick Drake (1970)
Nick Drake ponders reincarnation—or is it missed opportunities—in his frail, unaffected murmur. “I could have been a sailor, could have been a cook / A real live lover, could have been a book.” Oh, well. Piano and acoustic guitars swirl like leaves caught in an autumn zephyr. On his most lushly produced album, Drake still managed a great moment of delicacy, and it is the most beautiful statement of his short life and career.
13. “Moonlight Mile” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and performed by The Rolling Stones (1971)
The Stones may have been the biggest band in the world at the outset of the ‘70s, but it was a truly dark time for the guys. Brian Jones had only died a few years earlier. Keith and Mick’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, were both dealing with crippling drug problems. Altamont. Sticky Fingers is a reflection of that darkness. At the end of all its spite and anguish comes “Moonlight Mile”, a gorgeous, meditative song that struggles to find some thread of hope in all the misery. This is a landmark track for all members of the band save Keith, who was unusually absent from the recording. Charlie Watts’s drumming had never been so dramatically dynamic. Mick Taylor’s mesh of acoustic and electric guitars give the track deep texture. Mick Jagger’s singing and lyrics never so nuanced, sensitive, and druggy honest. Add Paul Buckmaster’s transcendent string arrangement, and you have The Stones’ most beautiful song.
14. “The Song Is Over” written by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who (1971)
Pete Townshend’s inability to explain his double-L.P./stage/cinema project Lifehouse adequately put it on permanent hiatus. He managed to salvage eight of its songs to assemble The Who’s most critically acclaimed album, Who’s Next. Townshend intended “The Song Is Over” to serve as the grand finale of Lifehouse, but even as the final track on Side A of Who’s Next, it retains its majesty. The composer’s voice delivers a message of doleful resignation over a haunting piano figure that explodes into the euphorically powerful chorus helmed by Roger Daltrey. No one delivers nervy, gut-wrenching beauty like The Who.
15. “Annie” written by Ronnie Lane and performed by Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane (1977)
When Pete Townshend wanted to tone down the thrashing, he was best to do it on his own. “Sunrise” and “Blue, Red, and Grey” were The Who’s softest tracks, but they were really Who songs in name and Townshend solo spots in actuality. When he started making records outside of his band in the ‘70s, he didn’t have to worry that Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle would push the needle into the red. But the most delicate and achingly beautiful track on the delicate and aching Rough Mix belonged to his collaborator. As a Small Face and Face, Ronnie Lane provided a mischievous sensitivity that contrasted the shouting and strutting of Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart. With his more sensitive partner Pete, Ronnie created his most delicate work of art. “Annie” is an ode to his daughter’s nanny, whom Eric Clapton described as a “spiritual grandmother.” Ronnie and Pete cast the song in a charming folk backdrop that maintains its reserve even as Ronnie’s voice threatens to crack when he wails, “Every leaf must fall Annie.” If you can listen to this beautiful track without getting a lump in your throat, you’re a lot tougher than me.