Stylus Magazines's Top 50 Basslines Of All Time, what's your Top 5 (/3/10/20/50/100 - whatever )?
| Sidemen, rhythm section, session musician. Forever ignored in favor of flashier lead guitars, outspoken vocalists, and virtuosos, the bass leads a lonely life stuck in the role of supporting player. Stylus, in deference to the underdog, presents some of the greatest moments when the bass player finally got some… |
50. Diamond D - Sally Got A One Track Mind
Perhaps the most important thing when we're talking about a bassline that is, after all, sampled, is to look at how the artist uses the sample for the song; in this case, early 90s production genius Diamond (a member of the aptly-named Digging in the Crates crew) picked up a little Tower of Power and designed a song around the swooning bassline, filtered with technology that had just become readily available. And what a dominating bassline it is, playing lead melody for a track about the pitfalls of promiscuity. By adding decorative atmospherics, Diamond melts a formerly funky bassline into a cold sheen of abject sadness.
49. Liquid Liquid – Cavern
Would anyone have given a shit about “Cavern” if Grandmaster and Melle Mel hadn’t instigated seven shades of litigation when they sampled (nay, covered it!) on 1983’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”? Who knows, but thanks to that single act of aural plundering, Liquid Liquid are in possession of one of the most famous bass lines ever to scar vinyl. Bestowed with the kind of rubbery addictiveness DFA would re-mortgage their mother for, “Cavern” is undergirded throughout by Richard McGuire’s relentless two-note behemoth. Contrasting perfectly with the histrionic art-school squawks and falsetto, the lower end is made all the more irresistible by the regular finger-clicking silences which instil the lolloping bass with an exuberant pregnancy that elevates it to greatness. If all that sounds like hyperbolic bollocks, give it the air-guitar treatment and you’ll soon agree…
48. The Sea and Cake - Bird and Flag
My brother and I used to joke about Sea and Cake bassist Eric Claridge. With Archer Prewitt and Sam Prekop both having carved out respected solo careers, and John McEntire working with Tortoise (among others), we imagined that Claridge—also the schlubbiest member of the band—probably just sat on his sofa at home, practicing his bass, while waiting for the others to come back from tour. But Claridge, who actually played with Prekop in Shrimp Boat, is also the band's secret weapon. On much of The Fawn, which flirts with electronics and repetitive patterns more than any other album in their catalogue, Claridge lays down loping lines that feel curiously subterranean. The skeletal "Bird and Flag" illuminates the man's style best: amidst a flurry of jittery textures, his melodic, head-nodding ten-note line pulls the song down to earth.
[John M. Cunningham]
47. Black Flag - Six Pack
Along with "TV Party," this was one of two anti-anthems on 1981's Damaged. But since the Flag played the whole LP with a debtor's desperation, these tracks kind of switched sides, into the realm of full-bore adoptability. For his part, Chuck Dukowski turns in a bassline seemingly crafted to confuse allegiances: ominous stabs at the lower register, gradually giving way to shorter clusters, inching up the scale at you. No funk, just chords. It's a neat little cycle of rising threat that especially plays well when Greg Ginn's guitar joins with its frantic scrapings. Soon Hank jumps in—something about beer. It barely matters at this point.
46. Tom Tom Club – Genius of Love
It's no surprise that Tina and Chris had to get away from Talking Heads frontman David Byrne to create what is undeniably their most euphoric groove. Rather than ranting about the paranoia of modern life or how heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, Tina Weymouth's sighs about being in heavy with her loving boyfriend and her "Sweet Soul Music"-style tribute to Smokey Robinson and Sly & Robbie create the perfect inspiration for Chriz Franz's rolling bass line underneath, seemingly harmonizing with the song's far more obvious guitar hook and propelling the song into the clouds. Sure, some lyrics about cocaine and the boyfriend being gone later in the song inspire thoughts that all may not be right in Tom Tom Club land, as they themselves perfectly summarize, but who needs to think when your feet just go?
45. John Mellencamp featuring Me’Shell Ndegéocello - Wild Night
Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” is a great record, but this cover is even better—due, yes, to the way it’s recast as a duet between Indiana’s favorite non-basketball-playing son and the world’s greatest African-American lesbian funkateer, but moreso thanks to the perfect bassline Ndegéocello gives it. No, she didn’t create it this bassline, but she reinvigorates it and makes it pop, making it funkier than anything else you’ve ever heard from Mellencamp. She owns it. Her bassline doesn’t “roar [sic] just like the night,” but it takes you there—and it’s a round-trip ticket, chile. Ndegéocello’s bass is “Wild Night”’s grease, but some you don’t mind getting on your hands.
44. Squarepusher - Iambic 5 Poetry
There comes a point in everyone’s life when a nice sit down and a cup of tea looks preferable to pumping yourself full of ketamine and fidgeting the night away to modem-fractured something and bass. That point was reached by Squarepusher on 1999’s “Iambic 5 Poetry.” In stark contrast to his tinnitus-inducing back catalogue, the lead track from the Budakhan Mindphone EP was a slow-motion epic that incrementally layered dusty layers of jazz-tinged detritus atop a ponderous bass line. Shrugging along with what initially seemed an overt lack of intention, the melodious bass soon revealed itself to be brain-itchingly addictive and oddly catchy, expertly straddling the line between a funeral march Joy Division and the Butch Cassidy Sound System.
43. Bill Withers – Lovely Day
What many people remember best about “Lovely Day” is the moment when Withers stretches the word “day” out for a full eighteen seconds toward the end (in addition to all the times he belts it out for seven or eight seconds). A truly stunning vocal performance, no doubt, but the taller the skyscraper, the stronger the foundation must be, and few basslines hold a song down as well. It’s so smooth that even Clyde Frazier and George Gervin couldn’t touch it, remaining rock-steady and cool while Withers’ face turned purple. The bassline of “Lovely Day” struts onward to this very day, a vital artifact from an era when slow jams actually jammed once in a while.
42. Primus – Jerry was a Racecar Driver
Les Claypool gave my thumb and pinky more than a few calluses through the years. Our man also possesses a funkiness that is equal parts the love child of Larry Graham and Jaco Pastorius, and SF Bay Area gonzo. “Jerry” is Primus’ stay in Camelot. Claypool’s riff twitches to a gas huffing, chicken-walk groove that then breaks furniture and bones in the song’s midway mosh when Larry LaLonde blows his nose with a guitar. Few bassists pinned such life into the machine like Claypool did in that brief time when the bass actually co-starred in rock. Sadly, the instrument fell back into being a wallflower again when mall-ternative rock was blown across all six winds.
41. Smith & Mighty - Bass is Maternal
“Bass is maternal / When it’s loud, I feel safer.” So say Smith & Mighty in the title track of their debut album. The Bristol duo’s mixing of dub, hip hop, and electronics would already have been termed “drum ‘n bass” by the UK press when this album was eventually released in 1995, but when they created this song in 1989, the idea of echoing drums and deep, deep bass thumps would have no real reference point. So the lyric here is key, for with it Rob Smith and Ray Mighty crystallize the maternal appeal of bass, an instrument that is less a sound than a foundation, a structure upon which all other sounds rest. It’s a warm, rich, inviting, and comfortable force that gives shape to everything else in music.
40. Pigbag – Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag
Ain't no jive. The problem with the Pop Group is that their awesomeness was directly proportional to when they were being the least ironic about their name, which unfortunately adds up to a grand total of one song, "She is Beyond Good and Evil," one of the most mindblowing things western civilization has yet to produce. Pop Group bassist Simon Underwood took that song's psycho-funk groove and had the good sense to rein it in a bit to the point of near-accessibility for his new group Pigbag's "Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag," creating a fret-jumping bass thump to hyperspeed the song into the 4th dimension and getting the song as close to "hit" status as he was likely to see in his lifetime. If the godfather of soul was still capable of rational thought in the 80s, he would've looked proudly on the boys.
39. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Give It Away
A remarkably simple funk-fuelled effort from the man who up until Blood Sugar Sex Magick was best known as the man most likely to play everything in a slapthafuckouttait style. Moving into a more bendy punctilious style, where songs are formed as opposed to jams rocked, his playing is still anything but perfunctory. Even though most of the song’s space is taken up by the other instrumentation (Jew’s harp, high-ended drums and Frusciante’s guitar), Flea’s fidgety energetic restraint on the bass drives everything. So much so that over the song’s chorus he manages to get away with just playing two notes. Its like he’s pulled out thirty-three notes of nimble fret mania from “Give it Away” and left a relatively small handful of precise notes in their wake; more movement less noise.
38. Stevie Wonder - Boogie On Reggae Woman
It’s not just a bassline, it’s this fuzzed-up happy farty bassline crucially underpinning one of Stevie’s funkiest excursions (which, musically, has nothing to do with reggae, it’s worth noting). P-Funk may have had better basslines, but I’m not sure they ever had one this weird in this big a smash. Stevie isn’t generally thought of as particularly outré, but if anything in his catalog fits that word, it’s this. Processed like heck, and possibly the first synthesized bassline to anchor a #1 (R&B) single. If you don’t find that reason enough to bow down, well, I can’t help you.
37. Alice in Chains – Would?
A fucking monster. Grunge was a genre more known for its shredding, discordant guitars, pounding drums and angst-ridden vocals than any sort of bass bravado, being essentially a funk-free genre. But with one song, Alice in Chains proved what a stupid concept that was. The bass line, which rightly kicks off the song, is among the most sinister things you'll ever hear, a prowling, unstoppable slither of mystery and horror. The rest of the band performs ably as well, with Layne Stayley providing some of his most memorable vocals, but in this song, for once it's the rest of the band that complements the bassline.
36. Tenor Saw - Ring the Alarm
Or maybe this piece should be called the “Stalag Riddim” as whilst “Ring the Alarm” is the most popular track to ride this riddim, I’ve listened to forty-three other versions in the run up to writing this piece, and there are scores more than that. And that’s the strength of this music, and the bassline on which it rides, that it can withstand assault from any angle. The initial two heavy bass stabs can signify righteous blood and fire preaching or stand as the deep foundations against which Scientist’s tides of dub echo buffet. The higher swinging between notes that completes the phrase keeps the arses moving on the dancefloor. It’s Tenor Saw’s version that remains the classic, however, because of the way that it dramatises this whole process. His lyrics are a confident proclamation that the sheer physicality of the sound, the bass, can destroy all comers at any soundclash. Ring the alarm; another sound is dying.
35. Can – Mother Sky
Holger Czukay could hypnotize with just two notes. His riff on Can’s “Mother Sky” rollicks over drummer Jaki Liebezeit’s lock-groove so simply that it’s almost scary. Czukay, the heart and soul of this classic 15-minute trance-out, used fingerwork that made a slight spring, helping to keep the blood flow in his brooding, shamanistic riff. But it’s not all repetiton, Czukay smoothly shifts gears at key moments, adding a few more chords to wake up the ghosts and he later speeds up the roil as the band becomes possessed by the groove. Given the near-religious devotion that such a practice demands, this may just be Czukay’s mind going beyond his ego and body into cosmic unison with the rest of Can. Timeless.
34. Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band – Express Yourself
Once upon a time, people actually got upset that rap groups sampled other artists’ records, and had the conflict played itself out in a courtroom, NWA’s use of “Express Yourself” probably would have been the crucial piece of evidence that rendered the case forever closed. Played by Marvin Dunlap, the bassline puts an immediate swagger in the step of even the squarest of squares. As impressive as that feat may be, perhaps its greatest attribute is the way it’s implemented within the original song—how it drops out for the bridge and the horn section. But it may just be its absence that proves its worth: the moments where it disappears only heighten one’s desire to hear it again and again and again.
33. The Damned – Neat Neat Neat
If modern music history turns your double play, then the question of "first punk band" has probably been posed in your presence a few times. Does proto count? Mod? Garage? Endless, rapturous dissension! But on yr licensed Trivial Pursuit card (Indie Windbag edition), there is no debate for first punk single: "New Rose," by U.K.'s Damned. This was the follow-up, no less powerful, featuring Captain Sensible's funky low-end intro. The tone's noteworthy: it sounds either like he broke out the 4-inch amp, or he'd gotten the loudest acoustic bass in the pawnshop; either way it just forces the gleeful fury northward.
32. Bob Marley & the Wailers - Small Axe
No list of great basslines is complete without a Jamaican entry, and there are few Jamaican tracks more memorable than “Small Axe,” a work Bob Marley, his fellow Wailers, and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry concocted long before Marley was a household name. Aston “Family Man” Barrett played bass on this number, one of a series of singles that would shape Marley’s career. The bass here is unobtrusive, to be sure, but its propulsive thumping neatly echo the lyrics, which warn mighty corporations and nations that the little guy is plodding (thump, thump, thump) along, waiting for the time to strike (“to cut you down”).
31. Happy Mondays - Hallelujah
As ever (the hugely underrated Mondays bass player) Paul Ryder has his bass’ roots in funk, but as you’d expect from something born out of the mind of Shaun Ryder’s brother, this is a nasty wallet stealing bastard of a bassline; loud, grimy, truculent, and aggressive. In a production job that manages to sound both swamped by its own foil burning murk and deep with purposeful right and left turns, the band easily ride this self-assured but nonchalant offspring of Can and early New Order. The Madchester EP original take may not be the best known version of the track but even the world famous Gregorian chant sampling housey remix couldn’t take the big cocked Manchester gangster swagger out of the song.
30. Fleetwood Mac - Go Your Own Way
Let us now praise rhythm sections. In the case of Fleetwood Mac, three vastly different songwriters (the Genius, the Witch, and the Songbird) sounded not just more tuneful than Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, but rocked with a fierceness mirroring the tumult in their lyrics and voices, thanks to the quiet brilliance of their drummer and bassist. On “Go Your Own Way,” a song boiling with such galvanic force that it go head to head with any of The Clash’s rockers released the same year, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie never settle for a predictable groove; the song’s rhythmic base shifts like the quicksilver bursts of controlled fuzz which Lindsey Buckingham squeezes from his guitar (on this song Fleetwood is practically a second guitar). The genius moment comes at the 2:40 mark: Buckingham takes his last solo, Fleetwood, with characteristic modesty, drops behind the beat, and McVie plucks three notes of breathtaking simplicity. The synergy between these three musicians reminds us that Fleetwood Mac is a band, dammit. So what if they can’t stand each other?
29. 23 Skidoo – Coup
Or, "the song so funky, they had to bass it twice." Sort of the punk-funk equivalent of "Dueling Banjos," "Coup" interweaves two bass lines always alternating between the same two notes, keeping the song constantly in motion and setting a bed of uneasy tension for that fantastic horn section to come and have a bad-ass pillow fight over. The song hardly needed to prove how ahead of its time it was, but just for confirmation, 1997 (fifteen years after "Coup") not only saw Primal Scream attempting with great success to replicate "Coup"s modern day outlaw vibe (no wonder ex-Scream producer Andrew Weatherall selected it for his Nine O'Clock Drop mix), but The Chemical Brothers ripping the bass line wholesale for their legendary big-beat anthem "Block Rockin' Beats". "Get down!!!!" indeed.
28. Pink Floyd - Money
There’s probably no more famous bass line than the one in Pink Floyd’s “Money,” from their zillion selling Dark Side of the Moon. It begins as money—change jangling and cash registers opening—before Roger Waters blends his bass into the ringing noises and gets the music started. It’s actually a rather obvious trick—using a sound effect to kickstart a riff. So why is it so popular and what makes it so memorable? Well, because it’s on one of the most successful albums of all time, because they probably did that trick before most others had thought of it, and because it’s a funky little groove Waters manages to create out of a little sound effect.
27. Underworld - Moaner
Karl Hyde gets a lot of credit, with his shouting about this girl Tina who lives in Berlin and she won't call him and now he's on a train and he's GONNA FIND HER OMG! Yes, he builds to unparalleled levels of paranoiac sputtering here, but he's not the one driving this machine. As usual with the Undies (does anyone call them that?), it was that Great Underworld Bassline, the sort that's so natural in their best songs that it's taken for granted. It's your average techno thump, of the circular, pulsating sort, but elasticized and liquid, spreading itself over the kick like grease on a wheel, propelling itself and everything else forward, forward, forward, perhaps forever, long after Hyde has been pacified, and everything else has dropped out.
26. Roxy Music - Love is the Drug
If you’re going to write a song about an aging pussyhound’s lust for life, you better make damn sure you assemble a groove to match. Roxy Music was infamous for never hiring a regular bassist, which resulted in a lot of overinflated bass lines mixed way too high. Siren is the only album where this weakness dovetailed with the band’s considerable strengths. John Gustafson’s lines are simplicity itself, serving as propulsion and ballast, over which singer/songwriter Bryan Ferry reduced four albums’ worth of magnificent overwrought bathos into one handy metaphor that works as a karaoke anthem and mirror-in-the-bathroom moment.
25. Daft Punk - Around The World
Daft Punk’s career almost appears now to have been about finding the perfect loop, the perfect beat and bassline to make people start to move and then to keep them moving for as long as possible. It’s almost as if the two camera-shy Frenchmen were on the quest for the Holy Grail, except that if their quest was for a solid object they would know when they had found it, and cease their toil; searching for a concept though, for an ethereal ideal, for the secret chord that David played to please the Lord… well, it’s not a chord. Why would it be? Daft Punk could have stopped in 1996. “Around The World” is incessant, irresistible, perfect, and it’s that bassline which makes it so. I hate the cliché, but if you can hear it and not move, you’re probably dead.
24. My Bloody Valentine - You Made Me Realize
What everyone remembers about this song is the guitar firestorm, particularly the indescribable section in the middle that would often be elongated for ten minutes or more in concert. But that immediate, primal stomp that opens the song (DUN-dun dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun)? Bass and drums. As far as openings go, it deserves to be as immortalized and as copied as those drums from “Be My Baby.” Debbie Goodge provides the actual melody for the song underneath all that fuzz, playing a running-not-walking bassline that gives “You Made Me Realize” its ferocious charge. Even during the central storm, check out the way her one, repeated note anchors it all. And after the music stops briefly to let Kevin and Belinda harmonize, what brings us back in? DUN-dun Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun...
23. The Orb - Blue Room
Wobble’s ability to surf the crest of zeitgeist’s on his low end skills is second to none (“Public Image” and “Higher Than The Sun”) and with The Orb’s “Blue Room” he came to soundtrack the nodding and shuffling of a whole new generation of couch loving music fans. With what is actually two killer basslines, but can appear like eight or nine after Paterson’s and Throb’s edits, he fetters the listener to open timeless space with the hypnotising insidiousness of the here-and now of dub bass. At points, he’s carrying the song totally, providing a stable melody amid a backdrop of confusion, dropping out as the band dip through alien dolphin surgery and wibblesome FX. Making ambience infectious and alive never looked / sounded so easy.
22. Isaac Hayes – Walk On By
This is how untouchable Isaac Hayes was as a creative force in the 1960s: he took James Alexander, bassist for the Bar-Kays—along with the MGs, Stax Records' supreme instrumentalists—and makes his most prominent part on Hayes' epic first track a stuttering one-note tap. Yet this isn't a reduction, really; amongst the stinging guitar and searing pocket-symphony, Alexander's part—which sounds like he dropped a note on the studio linoleum—keeps the whole affair grounded, evoking the image of Ike rocking back, gathering his broken thoughts. This was one of the first endeavors of the new Bar-Kays lineup; only Alexander and trumpeter Ben Cauley survived a 1967 plane crash that also killed Otis Redding. "Walk On By," just like the rest of Hot Buttered Soul, was one hell of a survivor's statement.
21. The Four Tops - Bernadette
On "Bernadette," Motown's James Jamerson provides all the truly necessary music. On the chorus, his bass announces each chord as the progression lowers, but through each chord, he bounces up and down a peak before dropping down to reiterate the pattern. As he often did, Jamerson hits the root note, but then leaves it behind to pull out a natural melody delivered with just a bit of funk. His bounce to the fifth leaves a pop feel to the line, but the motion of the line builds on the tension even while pushing the Tops' vocals forward. His restraint on the chorus allows vocalist Levi Stubbs to shine without the band losing its flow. After the two seconds of silence toward the end of the song, Jamerson's entrance is a scream, and you realize that that's the emotion he's been playing all along.
20. The Rolling Stones - It’s All Over Now
He might have had the worst haircut in the history of rock. He didn’t move on stage. He married a teenager when he was in his 50s. Bill Wyman was, and is, patently uncool. But stick “It’s All Over Now” on, turn the stereo balance all the way to the left, and crank this up loud and you’ll see exactly why Bill Wyman was so valuable to the World’s Greatest Rock And Roll Band. Old Stone Face redefines the phrase “in the pocket” here, and did so for more than a quarter century. Respect, as they say, is due.
19. Curtis Mayfield - Pusherman
As the only track on Superfly not dressed up with horns or strings, the lean "Pusherman" requires a bass line at the song's forefront, to navigate the band's clattering percussion and tight wah-wah guitar—not to mention Mayfield's own cool sing-song. Fortunately, Joseph "Lucky" Scott, who worked with Mayfield throughout the 1970s, provides two brilliant ones. The first is the catchy octave-leaping line at the top that everybody knows. But when the song shifts to the B section, Scott gets more playful, slowly tripping his way up a minor sequence that ends, surprisingly, with the 9th of the chord, plucked to sound loose and quizzical. And then, after a pause, he dutifully wanders back down again. Throughout, the bass keeps with the song's gritty hustle: always steady and locked in.
[John M. Cunningham]
18. PiL - Public Image
Even though “Public Image” is best known for heralding the rebirth of John Lydon (after the Rotten years) and as a gleaming symbol of Post-Punk’s spirit of reinvention it should be just as importantly regarded for having put Jah Wobble on the musical map. Those first three unaccompanied seconds of the song are all his and the first change of notes sounds almost unsteady as if fumbling in preparation for the charge into regions unknown that the band were about to make over the next two LPs. There’s an energetic yet dubby minimalism to this performance which stands outside punk’s closeted world of rehashed rock and roll, a voluble solid force filled with the concentration of all that Zen bollocks that Wobble goes on about all the time.
17. The Stone Roses - I Wanna Be Adored
It takes an age to emerge, arriving from behind a veil of something intangible, something that shimmers and glistens, that sounds familiar but which we don’t know. When we hear it, it’s as if we’ve known it forever, as if it has always existed. If you believe some people it always has. Deceptively simple, the bassline that opens The Stone Roses’ debut album is the only piece of music I have ever been bothered to learn how to play myself; several years ago I had a friend teach me the simple, sliding line that Gary Mounfield must have first played some 20 years ago now. I imagined that playing it would imbue me with a semblance of the magic, of the mystery, of the ominous glory and narcissism, which coursed through the song. It didn’t. I never picked up a bass guitar again. Why bother when it had already been played so perfectly?
16. The Clash - The Guns of Brixton
Despite being thoroughly sullied by the hand of Cook on Beats International’s “Dub Be Good to Me,” the yo-yo bass line of The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” is still as jaw-droppingly delicious as it was 26 years ago. Written, sung, and bass-fed by Paul Simonon (whose instrument mauling pose graced the London Calling cover and forever galvanized The Clash’s monochrome image), “The Guns of Brixton” was the first song to successfully merge reggae, dub and good old rock & roll into a single pop-laden bass line. With its friable musical tension and brash political sloganeering, “The Guns of Brixton” could readily have become lost in the run-out hinterland of this double-album changeover. Yet thanks to the stumbling bass line which appears to speed up and slow down throughout, Simonon crafted a sweaty sound that went on to influence everyone from The Specials to the Prodigy. More reminiscent of Lee Scratch Perry than the likes of “White Riot,” “The Guns of Brixton” is a cultural crucible done right.
15. M/A/R/R/S – Pump Up the Volume
In the age of late-80s sampladelia, this was the record that more or less exported the UK practice of stuffing dance songs with about as many hooks and samples as possible to clubs worldwide. Yet with the obvious exception of the "Pump up the volume / dance, dance" call-out, it's the other-worldly faux-bass hook that remains the only truly memorable thing about this song. Sure, the cowbell breakdown is nifty, the Public Enemy samples are expectedly awesome, but it's the bass that remains the constant throughout the whole thing, anchoring the song with enough of a conventional (well, sort of) hook to ensure the song's status as a crossover smash and an unforgettable dance classic.
14. Augustus Pablo – Frozen Dub (perf. Robbie Shakespeare)
Of all the countless basslines in dub reggae that brought listeners under the grace of Jah, Robbie Shakespeare’s three chords in “Frozen Dub” still shines brightest. Maybe it’s because the riff comes near the end of an album imbued with the angst of everyday life in Manley’s Jamaica. On Augustus Pablo’s immortal album, Shakespeare whistles through the streets with Pablo hollering back on his melodica, each step floating through the mixing board and echo effects of ace producer King Tubby. The hymnal riff lathers the soul with divine grace, while the beats lock the mind into dub’s trademark tick-tocks. It’s a state of pure bliss that few would want to leave—it’s a reason for living.
13. Mr. Oizo – Flat Beat
Almost unbelievably, this was number one in the UK charts in April 1999. Although most people still think that it was made by a puppet. But consider that the disguise of novelty is what has allowed some of the most extreme records that have charted to do so (“O Superman” by Laurie Anderson, no. 2, Oct 1981!) With “Flat Beat,” the novelty is excessive bass, bass that fills up as much room as the guitar and bass would on a rock record. Does the flat in the title stand for flatulent? It should. There’s a huge contrast between the twitchy drums, the chopped and diced sampled slivers of sound and air that endlessly circulate real jerky, and the simple, treacle-thick bass that sounds like it’s being played in the here-and-now on an analogue synth by a good natured goof with two fingers on the keys and a thumb on the mod wheel.
12. The Breeders – Cannonball
As any good bassist knows, riffs are riffs, gauge be damned. And besides a concise melody and force of strum, the best riffs dart boldly between the dual wickets of sound and silence. Perfect example: Josephine Wiggs' bubbling rejoinder to "Cannonball"'s drums, which deploys a couple stops that sound like false starts (this being the shambling alt-rock years, after all) before hovering over two unresolved notes, just waiting for Kelley Deal's lead elliptics. Drums, rhythm, bass, lead: "Cannonball" shows a remarkable synergy, sort of a low-rent but decidedly more fun "Marquee Moon." Wiggs would later form Kostars (whose Klassics with a "K" is my instant nostalgia), fill in at cello for Spiritualized, and release a solo record, but this is the work that'll best tear yr typical 90s teen's hippocampus a new one.
11. Charles Mingus – Haitian Fight Song
Igniting freaky post-bop avant garde-isms from deep within the spectral soul of traditional blues and gospel, the evasive, mythical Mingus was not only one of the first (and best) bass bandleaders, but also a visionary composer. “Haitian Fight Song” begins with a tremulous Mingus soliloquy before slipping into the ghost-swing of its bassline, a heave-ho occasionally fracturing into wild syncopation. Sorcerer-like, Mingus’ hypnotic, resolutely repetitive figure conjures the militaristic triplets of Jimmy Knepper’s trombone straight from the bass’ ebony fingerboard; a flailing trumpet joins, building the band into a frenzy of counter-melodies flung back and forth across an expanding tableau. Though the group works in and out of ecstasy, it’s Mingus’ bassline that stains the mind as the song crumbles, the epicenter of the blossoming madness around it. (This song makes two main appearances in the Mingus catalog, first as a small combo on 1957’s The Clown, and later in a faster, more aggressive but less nuanced big-band form on Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus entitled “II B.S.”)
10. Gang of Four – Damaged Goods
You could write about this thing a million different ways, and as long as you use some frenzied, over the top metaphor (mixed or straight), you’re getting to the root. Case in point:
“Gang of Four’s big muscular greyhounds—guitarist Andy Gill and bassist Dave Allen—charge hard out of the gate here, chasing each other in a mad, mad dash. Allen’s bassline plays the John Havlicek to Gill’s machete-thwack Larry Legend. The neat, flicked notes of Allen’s bass steal the show, the song’s bridge, the ball and maybe the crown of who really was the best talent in GoF.”
See how easy that was? This line is so deft and simple it’s not just for socialist garage bands; music writers get this and it’s like playing a game of pick-up in the old Boston Garden. Everybody wins.
09. Lou Reed - Take A Walk On The Wild Side
Aside from those sublime backing vocals every time Lou sings about the “coloured girls,” when you think of this song you're probably thinking of that lazy, loping bass, eternally turning over between two slow phrases. Sure, later on the bassist indulges in a slightly faster but still languid bout of jazzy plucking, but it's the enervated slide of the main bassline that sticks. Lou may be an asshole, but when the bass starts up the whole exercise sounds like a slow summer afternoon on the stoop, shooting the shit and hearing the radio from someone else's apartment, with Lou the odd guy from downtown trying to tempt you into hitting some of the weirder bars.
08. Phuture - Acid Trax
There are two ways in which this is a defining moment for people who love BASS. First is the most obvious: when the first tones of that bass pump in over those classic Chicago house drums, and everyone cheers in recognition, twerking to the beat juuuust right and waiting for the next level of bass experience. ACID. The sounds of the 303, a machine intended to create electronic basslines, mutated and warped into a psychedelic, squirming head-fuck swirling all around, belching otherworldy burbles bursting through your cerebral cortex. It is the sound of the unexpected, the simultaneously frightening and pulse-pumping adrenaline of the ripped-wide-open sounds of the new dancefloor. The question wasn't "bass—how low can you go?" but "bass—where are you taking me?!"
07. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart
I can write a book about the sinister way in which Peter Hook’s bass echoes and matches Bernard Sumner’s synth riff; how, in the song’s mournful opening fanfare, it hums, impatiently waiting for the rest of the band to play catch-up; how its pulse is as implacable as singer Ian Curtis’ unintelligible moan (I still don’t know all the lyrics and don’t give a damn); how it sounds like love: bottomless, full of dread, and, finally, exultant, before it comes apart.
06. The Meters - Just Kissed My Baby
This brilliant slab of funky architecture adds (and deletes) layers of sound with teasing impunity throughout its 4.40 minutes, nowhere more notably that that shiver-inducing moment at 23 seconds in when George Porter Jr.'s rubbery, sparse bassline hits the wah guitar and stuttering drums for a six. What's especially thrilling about “Just Kissed My Baby” is the way each part of the arrangement is at pains to break on through and really get crazy throughout the song (particularly those insistent horns), but it's the bass that keeps on holding back. In the hands of any other bassist, the introduction would likely be little more than a porno-style “uh-beow,” but Porter Jr. makes it as irresistible as that elevator-drop whirl in your stomach upon first really kissing someone new.
05. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
Of course Coltrane was looking for God, we all know that. He was searching the skies, searching interstellar space, searching his own soul, for the Source, for the Creator, the Beginning of all things. I don’t know if he ever found it. It’s unlikely, even given the amount that he packed into his too-short life, that he had time. But he got close. It wasn’t his sax playing that was signifying that which he sought, oh no, how could such terrifying, too-fast destruction and prayer be meant to represent God? Coltrane’s playing was the rapture and the anguish that went along with the search and the discovery. Nearly 40 years ago, man. Four notes. Jimmy Garrison. By the end, of course, of course, he’d turned it into a prayer, but to start with it was just a rhythm, and that was what sent Coltrane into rapture.
04. Donna Summer - I Feel Love
This is the first techno record. Yes, Kraftwerk were making music entirely by machines a few short years before this, but I'm talking techno as we know it today: sleek, stream-lined, pulsing, thumping dance music. There must have been doubters at the time, accustomed to disco studio musicians, and I can imagine Giorgio Moroder flipping a switch on his synthesizer, and watching these same doubters get flattened by ten tons of galloping bass. Yes, machines can fill dance floors. In the right hands, they can even create pure sex out of thin air, and here, Moroder's pulse met the ear of the Studio 54 massif, and birthed a million techno-children (and counting).
03. Chic - Good Times
Bernard Edwards gave “Good Times” a walking bassline that launched a thousand others—or at least Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” (funkier than any quartet of Brit honkies has any right to be, thanks to John Deacon’s wholesale theft) and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (funkier than any trio of NYC half-assed rappers—really, they were basically a rap version of a prefab boy band—has any right to be, thanks to a literal wholesale theft in the form of an uncredited lift of the whole damn instrumental track). Proof that sometimes, simple is best: it may be Nile Rodgers’ chicken-scratch guitar that catches your ear, but it’s ‘Nard’s easygoing bassline you’ll be humming hours later. “Good Times” features one of the most purely economical basslines ever, and one of the best.
02. James Brown - Make it Funky, Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4
Culling a list of the best world-beating basslines without mentioning James Brown and the JBs is like rattling off great cyclists and neglecting Lance Armstrong—it’d be patently obvious you were just trying to be difficult. Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, the Godfather labored with near-messianic zeal to locate and hone the perfect groove, tunneling deeper into the fetishized isolation of pure rhythm than any commercially celebrated artist before or since. The need for catchy hooks, choruses, melodies and pop structuring melted away like so much sweat after the 12-minute workout “Make it Funky,” the kind of quintessential exercise that makes any claimants to the JBs’ throne seeem downright per-funk-tory. Introduced en medias funk, the band indulges for barely a minute before falling away, giving room for Fred Thomas’ sublimely simple, impossibly earth-shattering four-note bassline to pour pure liquid pleasure into your brittle, brittle bones.
01. Queen - Under Pressure
Who would have thought that such an extravagant, ostentatious band could team up with such a ludicrously flamboyant solo artist and create something so possessed of understated cool, so minimal and precise? No one embodied 70s excess like Queen did, except perhaps David Bowie. They came together, once, for one song, and that bassline was the progeny. The song itself, of course, rose into a showy stomp, but oh my. John Deacon channelled Chic into that bassline. So magic that even Vanilla Ice couldn’t fuck it up. So magic that it made Vanilla Ice sound good. ANYONE could sound good with that riff underneath them. The least cool band ever, the least cool rapper ever, and the coolest bassline.